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Illinois Soccer starts seasons with two blowout wins

The Illini attack finds a previously unseen gear to crush Mizzou and Illinois State.

Craig Pessman / Illini Athletics

When the Fall 2021 Illini soccer schedule came out, it was clear that Illinois wouldn’t be facing any pushovers. Every single opponent was either a high- or mid-major. The first two matches were against one of both, and with a rivalry piled on top of each, the start to the Illini season didn’t look to be much of a cakewalk.

Well…this is where I would segue into a general recap of all the big moments from both matches, but to keep this article relatively short I’m only going to talk about the 9 goals that Illinois scored and the one they conceded.

The Braggin’ Rights match got off to a cagey start on Thursday night. Illinois generally controlled play for the first 30 minutes, possessing the ball and shutting down the Tigers quickly when they weren’t. However, no Illini forays forward tested Mizzou much until the 31st minute when freshman midfielder Sydney Stephens put a pass over the Tiger defense for freshman Abby Lynch to run onto. The young speedster capitalized, taking the ball to the 6-yard box and slipping her shot past the Missouri keeper to break the deadlock.

The score remained 1-0 until senior Kendra Pasquale decided it shouldn’t stay that way in the 54th minute. After an initial Illini attack from Pasquale and Stephens was snuffed out, the defender-turned forward Pasquale took the ball off the foot of the Tigers’ centerback. After bearing down on the goal, Pasquale went 5-hole to double Illinois’ lead.

And the next Illinois goal came right on the heels of Pasquale’s. I am going to recap literally everything that happened between the goals:

  • Mizzou kicked off, passed it back to their defense, who passed it up to a Tiger on the near side of the center circle.
  • Stephens and Hope Breslin bore down on that Tiger and took the ball away. Breslin passed it back to Eileen Murphy in the defensive midfield.
  • Murphy launched a long switching ball to an open Makena Silber on the far wing. After a bad first touch, Silber corralled it and cut back to the middle of the field.
  • She then launched a low cross that knifed through the Mizzou defense and found an open Breslin on the near side in the box about 12 yards out from goal.
  • After she let the ball trickle to the near corner of the 6-yard box, Breslin did a nice little fake to let a Tiger defender fly past, and then neatly slotted the ball past the Mizzou goalkeeper with her right foot to give Illinois a 3-0 lead.

That took a whole 22 seconds.

It took a little bit longer for the next Illini goal. In the 79th minute, Lauren Stibich went on an enterprising run forward from her right wingback position. A Tiger caught up with her and put in a sliding challenge that got mostly ball, but unfortunately for Mizzou, that tackle popped the ball behind their backline where freshman Maeve Jones tracked it down. Jones blasted a shot past the Mizzou goalie to finish off an impressive 4-0 win for the Illini.

Another road trip awaited the Illini for the back half of rivalry weekend, but this leg was just a bit shorter. An hour’s drive separates Illinois and Illinois State, which helps explains why the Illini have played the Redbirds more than any other non-conference opponent. In that relatively long history, Illinois held a 3-3-2 record against ISU in Normal, and all 3 of those wins were by a one-goal margin. The Illini had only scored multiple goals in a match once at Adelaide Street Field.

History would’ve expected a tight affair Sunday evening, but this match did not live up to history’s expectations in the slightest. Things got off to a quick start when Maggie Hillman forced a turnover in the Redbird midfield in the 7th minute. She slipped a ball in behind to Silber, whose initial effort was impressively saved by the ISU keeper straight up in the air. However, Silber boxed her out and fought off 3 Redbirds before putting her shot into the roof of the net to give the Illini a 1-0 lead.

The lead was short-lived, however. In the 12th minute, ISU forward Riley O’Brien slipped behind Illini right back Summer Garrison, and Redbird midfielder Ashley Santos placed a perfect ball over the top right to an unmarked O’Brien. Illini goalkeeper Julia Cili came off her line quick, but not quick enough as O’Brien chipped the onrushing keeper and put the ball bouncing into a wide-open net to knot the score at 1-1.

But the score would not be tied for long. In the 15th minute, the Illini press went into action, as some excellent pressure from Pasquale and Silber up front on the right led to an errant back pass from a Redbird defender that Breslin read like a book. After rounding the keeper, she converted from a tight angle to give the Illini a 2-1 lead.

But once again, the score would not be 2-1 for long. Breslin found some space on the left wing in the 22nd minute and went for a long run, deftly skipping past a pair of ISU defenders along the way. She put a ball into space for Stephens, who sent a cross over to Silber squarely in the middle of the box. Her first effort went bar-down and possibly in, but she bungled the ball over the line to record the brace and make sure the score would be 3-1.

Then, Breslin really took over. In the 59th minute, Illini fullback Lauren Stibich picked up the ball in the defensive third, dribbled into the middle third, and slid a pass into the attacking third, which found a wide-open Hope Breslin who outfoxed the Redbird offside trap. She went far post against the poor Redbird keeper to record her first-ever multi-goal game at Illinois.

And she wasn’t done. Not long after ISU kicked off, Hope was taken down just outside the box from behind with an obvious and possibly cardable foul that went uncalled. ISU took possession and something happened where the Illini midfield took the ball back (the camera was still on Breslin who was slowly getting back to her feet). Anyway, Maggie Hillman found Makena Silber in acres of space on the right wing. She unleashed a thunderbolt from the corner of the box that the ISU keeper made an outstanding save on. However, the rebound went straight up into the air again, and Breslin, back to her feet, cleaned it up to pick up the hattrick a whole 42 seconds after picking up her brace. More soccer was played after this, but no more goals were scored, making the final score 5-1.

A couple things:

  • What this team is doing with lineups is fascinating. I think the base formation is a 4-4-2. The back 4 is very obvious, with Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal and Aleah Trieterer anchoring it in the middle, Ashley Cathro as one fullback, and one of Garrison and Stibich occupying the other fullback spot. I know that Murphy plays as the central defensive midfielder. Beyond that…(*shrug*). There are wingers. There’s another central midfielder that plays alongside Murphy. There’s a lone striker. There’s a CAM in there somewhere. I have no clue who will occupy those spots at any one time. It’s all very Dutch Total Football-esque. This team goes through so many attacking looks, all of which are very effective, and I don’t know how opposing teams are supposed to scheme against it. It is a delight to watch.
  • The way Coach Janet Rayfield is deploying her weapons is so cruel. Her first move is playing Pasquale as the main striker alongside Silber which is mean in itself because if you want to press, Pasquale is incredibly quick and a former defender, so she will cause problems up front. Meanwhile, Silber is fast in her own right and very strong (she literally fought off 4 ISU defenders to score her first goal on Sunday). Both of these players together will exhaust just about any defense. This means that bringing on Abby Lynch as an attacker is just about the meanest thing you can do, because she is also a varsity cross country runner here at Illinois. This might violate the Geneva Convention. Hey, if that isn’t working, why not throw Breslin on top, so there’s only one line of defenders that she can wile her way through before she’s in on goal? Why not throw in Maeve Jones for the heck of it? These are all the main options Rayfield has used so far, but we’ve seen what Zoey Kollhoff and Julia Eichenbaum can do up front.

It’s been clear that Illinois has had all this attacking talent, which makes it frustrating that things never really clicked the past couple of years. It appears this year that Rayfield is pushing all her chips to the middle of the table, and it seems to be working. I don’t know if it’ll continue working, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

  • I only vaguely mentioned Maeve Jones before, but I already like the way she plays. Yeah, her touch is a bit loose at times, and I don’t know how good she can be as a distributer. However, there’s one play that sticks out to me that shows why she can be special. Late in the Mizzou match, Abby Lynch fired a low cross into her at the top of the box, and before Maeve could assess her options, she had already sent a wicked one-timer towards goal that completely rooted the Tiger goalkeeper. It flashed wide, but it sticks out to me because that was a prime example of an instinctive striker.
  • The offense, as usual, is going to get all the headlines, but the back line and the defensive midfield need some recognition too. I don’t think they allowed a single shot from inside the box in the Mizzou match, which was very good for Cili, who was seeing her first-ever collegiate minutes.
  • That being said, it’s time to play the blame game for the ISU goal. I think it’s a 60-40 spit between Garrison and Cili. Summer made the first mistake, falling asleep out on the left wing and letting a Redbird get behind her. Cili compounded the mistake by flying off her line maybe a bit too eagerly. Hindsight is 20-20, but I think JVD would’ve been able to shut down the attack or made it much more difficult if the Redbird didn’t have the opportunity to take it on her first touch. So yes, Garrison had the initial mistake, but Cili made it worse, so splitting the blame here seems to be fair.
  • Now it’s time to say something nice about Garrison and Cili. I said earlier that the back 4 and the midfield all play hard, but Garrison had the shining example of this in the Mizzou match. In the first half, Garrsion ventured a little bit forward towards the sideline, but she went down of her own accord, which gifted Mizzou possession in a dangerous area. The Tigers counted her out of the play, which was a mistake because Summer got up and hustled back into the play. She took the ball off the Missouri player that initially regained possession to snuff out the attack. Cili didn’t see a whole lot of action in the back, but she seems extremely comfortable with her feet. Her distribution is excellent.
  • I’m going to say some negative things about Cili again. She is the first-choice (but not the starting, we’ll get to that) goalkeeper, and her performance needs to be scrutinized a bit. She made 2 major mistakes over these 2 matches. We already talked about the second, which was part of the reason why Illinois State scored on Sunday. The first happened at the tail end of the Mizzou match, when a pop fly came into her box, and she made a mess of it, spilling it towards her own end line. She recovered and nothing came of it, but I felt it was important to at least mention it. Goalkeeping can make or break a team, and her growth as a collegiate keeper is massively important to Illinois’ aspirations this year. Hopefully, experience will iron out these inconsistencies.
  • Mackenzie Schuler’s goalkeeping cameos add another layer of fun to this team. Granted, it’s because neither Cili nor Naomi Jackson are at some fitness standard for starting set by the coaching staff, and if you think about it long enough, it’s a tiny bit of an insult to Schuler. However, it’s kind of a harmlessly weird thing (although I can see a situation where it could go incredibly wrong), and Schuler’s stats are going to look so bizarre if this continues. As someone who delights in weirdness and chaos in sports, I hope this keeps going throughout the season.
  • Time for some quick statements and random thoughts about Illini players and tactics because there’s so much to talk about but I’m already over 2000 words in. Eileen Murphy has somehow gotten more athletic, and opposing teams have decided to counter this by undercutting her on corners, which probably isn’t legal. Maggie Hillman is now creating chaos instead of reacting to it. Her tackles in the midfield basically turn into fistfights and her opponent usually ends up on the ground. Sydney Stephens is a workhorse in the midfield, and her passing is exceptional. She’s tied with Silber as the team’s leader in assists, although one of Mak’s was a shot that was rebounded by Breslin, so really Syd leads the category. Kennedy Berschel didn’t put a pass wrong in the Mizzou match, and she has put on some muscle in the offseason (this needed to happen, she was 5-2 and a beanpole in the spring, now she’s still 5-2 but a little more difficult to push around). Angie Galo is the backup center back to Treiterer and JVD. While she isn’t going to challenge them for important minutes, she did look capable and would be a serviceable replacement if either half of the pairing gets injured. The wingbacks have some more freedom to go forward (heck, Stibich had 2 assists over the weekend), but not necessarily as an overlap. There looks to be a ton more freedom in the way this team plays, which is part of the reason they have been so fun to watch.
  • Let’s stop talking about what happened on the pitch and focus on one of the pitches itself. There are three main things to note about Adelaide Street Field. First, the surface didn’t look amazing. The grass looked a little to high and inconsistent, but I’m basing this off an ESPN+ stream on my laptop, so I’m not entirely sure. Second, based off Google Maps measurements, the pitch is 75 yards wide, which is the same as Demirjian Park (I have it in my mind that Demirjian’s dimensions are 120x75, but I can’t find those numbers anywhere). The camera angle at ASF is down lower and set back a bit more than Demirjian Park’s camera angle, which makes it look skinnier than it actually is. Finally, it delights me that they named the stadium after a nearby street. It’s an extremely British and even Australian thing to do, and it’s one of those tiny little details that I love about English soccer and even Aussie Rules Football. I can’t think of any other current American stadiums named after a nearby road (please tweet at me if I’m wrong). If some Illinois State booster out there decides to donate enough to rename Adelaide Street Field, I kindly ask that you keep “Adelaide Street” somewhere in the title.
  • We’re going to continue to pull our focus back and talk about the broadcasts now. First, hearing Mizzou/SEC announcers talking about an Illini soccer team having a 4-0 lead, dominating the match, and being more than deserving of that 4-0 lead over Mizzou was a sound that will stick in my memory alongside sounds like the crowd reaction to the McCourt field goal against Wisconsin and Rosemont watching Deron’s tying 3 go in. Second, Scott Sudikoff shouted out TCR during the ISU broadcast, so it’s only polite to return the favor. He’s a jack-of-all-trades play-by-play announcer, but he’s very good broadcasting soccer. There’s a delicate balance between describing everything that’s happening on the pitch and letting the match breathe a bit, and he’s often right in the sweet spot.
  • Your barometer reading after this chunk of the schedule is, uh, off the charts good. That being said, I’m still not exactly sure what to make of this team after these first two matches because I have no idea who good Mizzou and ISU actually are. Mizzou is generally a solid team, but they spent their Sunday getting blown out at home against Nebraska by a score of 5-0. ISU was picked to finish 2nd in the MVC and did what good mid-majors do on Thursday by travelling to Ypsilanti and beating Eastern Michigan 4-0.

Here’s the conclusion I’m coming to: I don’t know good Mizzou and ISU are, and heck, I don’t know how good Illinois is. However, you have to be pretty good to beat your rivals by a combine score of 9-1. Illinois did what good teams do, and historically, the 2021 Illinois team has done better so far than some good Illinois teams have done in the past. I think Illinois is good, but I don’t know how good they are, if that makes sense.

However, Illinois was picked to finish 9th in the Big Ten, which raises the question of how good the Big Ten is. Iowa went on the road and beat both DePaul and #21 Saint Louis, so I think they’re pretty good. Nebraska had a similar weekend to Illinois, beating Western Illinois 3-0 before travelling to Columbia for that 5-0 slaughter of Mizzou. Are the Huskers good now? Meanwhile, Indiana drew a Notre Dame team that beat Illinois 4-0 in an exhibition, so how good are the Hoosiers? As a whole, the B1G only lost 2 matches and drew 3 in the 27 matches they played on Thursday and Sunday. This has the makings of a bloodbath come conference play.

There were a couple of intriguing results involving Illini non-conference opponents. Xavier beat Northwestern 2-1 in Cincinnati (Is Xavier good now? Is Northwestern bad?). Bowling Green gave Michigan a run for their money but came up short by a score of 2-1 as well, which is a result that makes sense. Butler, on the other hand, fell at home 5-0 to the Wolverines, so is Butler bad now?

It’s all way too early to tell who’s good and who’s bad, but that clearly won’t stop me or my anxiety from trying.

  • One team that is always good is #3 North Carolina, which makes them a reliable measuring stick. That’s who Illinois faces next in a match that will do wonders in figuring out how good Illinois actually is. The match kicks off at 8 PM on Thursday. It also is the grand opening of Demirjian Park, and admission is free. If you can’t make it out, the match will be broadcasted on the main Big Ten Network channel.