After an excellent start to the season, Illinois soccer had some expectations going into the meat of their non-conference slate. Coupled with the official opening of Demirjian Park to fans, and a weekend an Illini fan could only dream of seemed to be within reach.
It got off to a good start on Thursday night against #2 North Carolina. The Illini high press did its job in the 4th minute, forcing an error out of the Tar Heel goalkeeper. Hope Breslin corralled it and found the wide-open net with her shot to give the Illini an early 1-0 lead.
The good times looked like they would keep going, as Kendra Pasquale found herself with only half a field and the UNC goalkeeper in front of her in the 5th minute off the scraps of a Tar Heel corner. Unfortunately, North Carolina is very good, and a Heel defender tracked her down. One tackle and one pass later, the Tar Heels equalized through Elizabeth Murphy.
From defense to offense as quick as a flash ⚡— UNC Women's Soccer (@uncwomenssoccer) August 27, 2021
Moore ➡️ Murphy ➡️ Back of the net! pic.twitter.com/RX0FWJhQcN
Then, North Carolina took over. Over the next 22 minutes, the Tar Heels outshot Illinois 6-1, and the pressure paid off. A UNC free kick found Macee Bell right in front of goal, and she directed the ball just past Illini goalkeeper Julia Cili to give the Tar Heels a 2-1 lead in the 27th minute.
Things only got worse for the Illini from there. A perfectly placed cross from Paige Tolentino in the 36th minute just cleared the outstretched palm of Cili and landed right on the head of Rachael Dowart. Dowart didn’t mess up one of the easiest headers of her life, and North Carolina took a 3-1 lead into the half.
The pass— UNC Women's Soccer (@uncwomenssoccer) August 27, 2021
We're up 3-1 at the half! Tune in to the second half on Big Ten Network. pic.twitter.com/ddJUhfNijy
The game was quickly put out of reach right after the teams came out of the locker rooms. Emily Colton scored in the 47th and 53rd minutes to pick up a brace, both coming from assists from Emily Murphy. From there, UNC took their foot off the gas and if the next 37 minutes were played, nobody would’ve noticed.
Illinois looked to get things back on track on a steamy Sunday against a tough Butler Bulldogs squad, but the visitors started on the front foot and dictated play through most of the first half. It finally came to fruition in the 40th minute, when a Butler corner found a pocket of chaos at the front post, and the ball trickled across the line to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.
A brief moment of pressure from the Illini bookended halftime, but it was Butler who would score next. In the 55th minute, a Bulldog cross somehow made it through the Illini back 4 and found Katie Soderstrom on the back post who made no mistake to put the Bulldogs up 2-0.
Butler looked to put things absolutely out of reach, but two outstanding saves from Cili kept the Illini in it. The outfield players would eventually reward Cili’s good play with a goal of her own. The ball found freshman Angie Galo outside the box. Her shot first looked like a cross, which fooled the Butler keeper. Pasquale was there on the doorstep to clean up the spilled save to cut the Butler lead to 2-1 in the 62nd minute.
Some tense play followed with both teams getting good looks, especially Zoey Kollhoff, whose effort in the 72nd minute forced the Butler keeper into an outstanding save. However, Butler would put the final nail into Illinois’ coffin shortly thereafter in the 76th minute. A calamity of marking in the back of the Illini defense left Alli Leonard open about 10 yards out, and she calmly put the ball past Cili to put the game out of reach. Illinois could not muster much of an attack, and Butler put on a time killing clinic to see out a 3-1 Bulldog win.
A couple thoughts:
- I have a theory as to how these teams could shut down the Illinois attack. Illinois trots out a 4-3-3 which puts plenty of strain on the middle 3. The first-choice 3 are usually Sydney Stephens, Maggie Hillman, and Eileen Murphy. Illinois likes to build out of the back, so one or more of these 3 will have to be a link to the front 3. If you were an opposing coach and had to pick one to act as this link, it’d be Murphy. She can make a spectacular pass here or there (her pass to set up Kollhoff in the Butler match was astounding), but she’s probably the least consistent. The problem is that outside of Murphy, Illinois doesn’t have any other player that can match up as physically with opposing midfielders. So if the coaching staff wants to keep up their style and build up through the middle, they’re stuck between a rock and hard place.
- Time to pick on the defense a bit. So far, the Illini have conceded two discreet goals off two different basic patterns. The first is Summer Garrison letting her mark get behind her. This played a major role in Illinois State’s goal and Butler’s second, although I do want to mention that she put in two massive shifts in this weekend at right wingback. If she can clean this up, she’ll be a solid quarter of the back 4. The second is exemplified by Butler’s third and UNC’s fifth, where a fullback gets beat on the wing and one of the center halves comes over to help. Usually, this means that the other center half and fullback shift over to mark the more dangerous attackers, but due to miscommunication or something, it just didn’t happen and led to two easy goals. Whether this is due to inexperience (either one or both of Aleah Treiterer or Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal weren’t on the field for both of these goals) or poor coaching doesn’t matter. It needs to be cleaned up quickly.
- I don’t think my vague recap captured how physical and tense the Butler match was. Illinois committed 15 fouls to Butler’s 13, while Butler picked up 3 yellow cards to Illinois’ 1 (frustration fouls are just part of the Hope Breslin experience). I do want to give special shoutouts to two Illini players though, both of them queens of chaos. Maggie Hillman turns every tackle into a fistfight and toed the line perfectly on Sunday. She managed to play hard enough to warrant a stern talking-to from the ref but did not go into his book. Zoey Kollhoff managed to play a whole 11 minutes but managed to draw two cards on the Bulldogs. The first happened when Kollhoff fouled a Bulldog but then went down injured, which I think caused the Butler player to say something that the ref felt warranted a caution. The second happened when she got behind her defender and forced her into a gamesmanship foul to stop an attack. If she had put away her chance, that would’ve been an absolutely perfect 11 minutes for Kollhoff.
- Cili update: she let in 8 goals this weekend, but she was left out to dry on most if not all of them. Maybe she plays the cross better on Carolina’s third, but the defense left an unmarked Heel right on the goal line. Also, she had a tiny little slip on Butler’s second, but errors made by the defense in front of her loomed larger there. She made two astounding saves to keep Illinois in the Butler match, so overall, I think she played pretty well considering the circumstances she was in. I’ll throw in a highlight of hers, but keep in mind that she had at least two more saves like this in the Butler match
- Schuler update: In a fascinating turn of this year’s most fun storyline, midfielder Mackenzie Schuler saw extended minutes against North Carolina, and she was terrifyingly called into action against the #2 team in the nation. Due to Illinois not getting any sort of free kick, Schuler was on the field for the first 2:46 of the game as the Tar Heels buzzed around her goal. Eventually, North Carolina put a dangerous cross into Schuler’s box, and Mackenzie came out and expertly claimed it. When asked after the game, Rayfield expressed some nervousness about the play but credited Schuler’s background as a multisport athlete handle it well. Now, I said it was a cross, but it could’ve been seen as a shot, which means that Schuler could’ve had a save to her name, but nooooooooo the statistician isn’t on board for the quest to make the wildest career statline possible.
Anyway, right now Schuler has an immaculate 0 GA/90, while Cili has a less sterling 2.28 GA/90, which begs the question: do we have a goalkeeper controversy on our hands? The stats say we might.
- I was there as a “journalist,” which means that I should talk about the post-match press conferences. Both Coach Janet Rayfield and Hope Breslin seemed pretty accepting of the UNC match. Rayfield even stated that she was going into the match with the goal of learning, not winning versus losing, which is more than fair considering North Carolina is, like, extremely good. The mood after the Butler match was a bit more somber. Your buzzwords were “the mental game” from Verzosa-Dolezal and “energy” and “better on the ball” from Rayfield. Again, this all tracks. Illinois was chasing the Bulldogs all day and never really caught up. Fixing one of those 3 buzzwords will likely lead to improvement of the other two.
- When asked for positives from Sunday’s match, Rayfield mentioned the freshmen, which I heartily agree with. I’d like to single out Angie Galo though. The freshman centerback brings a completely different skillset to the game than Treiterer and JVD. Her passing out of the back is much more ambitious than the other two and is still fairly successful. Plus, she seems a little lighter on her feet, which should be useful against shiftier attackers. Also, I don’t know if her shot/cross that led to Pasquale’s goal was a mishit, but if it wasn’t, good heavens. Now, both the marking calamity goals I highlighted earlier both happened with her on the field, and while I don’t think either were solely her fault, the communication may not be there yet. It’ll come with time though, and early returns are promising.
- Some quick notes about Demirjian Park: the bathrooms are very nice, as are the few glimpses of a bit of the inside that I got as I was led down to the field for postgame interviews. However, the searing heat on Sunday was exacerbated by the shiny, brand new metal bleachers that make up the stands. Now, you’re observant, you would note that the facility has a cantilever roof that goes out from the top of it, and with it being the afternoon and the facility being on the west side of the pitch, this would provide some shade. Your assumptions are all correct here except for one: the cantilever roof isn’t exactly a roof. It’s more or less some fancy bars that hold some lights for the stands. It provides a miniscule amount of shade when the sun is mostly overhead. This shouldn’t be too much of an issue as the weather cools off, but it was a regrettable design choice this past weekend.
- So looking at the barometer so far, this chunk is so far going badly, especially considering how North Carolina and Butler have fared against other Big Ten opponents. The Tar Heels visited Ohio State on Sunday and pick up a fairly tight 2-0 victory, while Butler dropped a 5-0 match to Michigan and won 3-1 against Northwestern earlier this year. Just based on this, it seems like Illinois hasn’t quite stepped up a tier in the B1G, but there’s still a little time to work out some kinks before conference play kicks off.
- The non-conference schedule rolls on, however, with another Big East opponent at home. The Xavier Musketeers have played 4 matches so far and have notched 4 1-goal wins, including a 1-0 victory at Saint Louis and a 2-1 win over Northwestern. The Musketeers seem to be much improved over last season, so once again, this should be a good battle. Kickoff at Demirjian Park is at 7 PM Thursday night. For those not attending, the match will be streamed on BTN+.