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2021 Illini Soccer Roster Preview

Probably the most exhaustive collegiate soccer roster preview you’ll find anywhere on the internet.

Craig Pressman / Illinois Athletics

As the 2021 (fall) collegiate soccer season rolls around, it seems like more of the same for Illini Soccer. Nearly everyone is back from last spring squad that posted a respectable 6-5-1 record. The expectation is for Coach Janet Rayfield to roll out the same 4-4-1-1 formation, and we’ll stick with that as we start from the back and work forward. Along the way, we’ll choose probable starters, discuss other options, maybe go off on a couple of tangents, and also coming away with a big “if” for each group could affect the team overall.

Goalkeeper

Julia Cili, Sophomore

The current Illini roster currently has only 2 goalkeepers, so I’ll side with experience here. The two seniors in Sami Sample and Elizabeth Cablk graduated, while rising sophomore Natalie Phelps transferred to Saint Louis (the Billikens are extremely good, so that’s a pretty solid move on her part). Cili looked decent in last year’s fall scrimmages, but Sample played every single minute for the Illini in the spring. Her likely back up is Naomi Jackson, the former Freeport Pretzel who was one of 3 goalkeepers to be named to the United Soccer Coaches high school All-American team this past year. This feels like last season’s preseason goalkeeper situation. We outsiders have no real idea what we might get in the coming months from the Illini netminders. The good news is that as long as Sample’s development wasn’t an anomaly last season, goalkeeping coach Lisa Lubke will likely mold Cili and/or Jackson into solid collegiate ‘keepers.

Big If: If Cili/Jackson can just be reliable, then Illinois should have a very solid defense. As we’ll get into shortly, Cili/Jackson will have a defense that mostly allows pretty tame shots from the opposing attack. Sample wasn’t called upon to make too many spectacular saves last season. Granted, the goalkeeper position can carry or doom a team (just look at Iowa last season), but Illinois just needs reliability in the net if they want to take a step forward over seasons prior.

Defense

Ashley Cathro, RS Jr. | Aleah Treiterer, Jr. | Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal, Soph. | Lauren Stibich, Sr.

Everyone’s back! That’s very good because they were pretty darn solid last year. They only allowed a goal per game over the course of last season and helped Sample to a .824 save percentage, the second best in the Big Ten last Spring. Granted, some credit goes to Sample for that number, but it has to be shared with the four players directly in front of her who didn’t allow too many dangerous chances. What dangerous chances they did allow were mostly off miscues (the two season-ending Iowa goals came directly from poor clearances in the back). If they’re able to clean those up, this defense could go from solid to exceptional. Now, in the modern game, it’d be nice if your back line could provide a regular attacking spark down the flanks, but that’s secondary to their defensive responsibilities.

With individual breakdowns for this group, we’ll start inside and work our way out. Treiterer and JVD are a solid center half pairing. They aren’t extremely physically imposing, but they are big enough to muscle forwards off the ball when need be while being quick enough to shutdown quick attackers trying to slice through their lines. They had a very good rapport last season. Most of the chances they allowed were mostly from individual mistakes, which are much easier to fix than breakdowns in communication. The problem (which is a reach) is that they played every single minute last season, so I have no idea who Rayfield would have to fill in if one of JVD or Treiterer go down injured. As the team’s designated set piece deliverer (extremely strange for a center back but she led the team in assists last season so I’m not complaining), Treiterer might be slightly the more important of the 2 even. Basically, get these 2 in protective bubbles, STAT.

As for the fullbacks, they are also solid. There’s no clear weakness to exploit in either Cathro or Stibich. Cathro in particular played well coming off injury last season, returning to form as the hard-working, physical left back we saw her freshman year. Stibich, on the other hand, was a welcome surprise. Looking at last season’s preview, I had a pretty good idea that Cathro, Treiterer, and JVD would be involved (whiffed on Urteaga but I’ll take 3 out of 4 when the whole back line was getting replaced), but Stibich wasn’t very much on my radar. She has gone from solid but unremarkable to remarkably solid. Both Cathro and Stibich chew up a lot of ground and put in an honest day’s work every time they step on the pitch.

Backups and subs: I wouldn’t expect too many voluntary subs. When Stibich went down with injury, Rayfield turned to Katelynn Buescher and then Summer Garrison. These players were more Swiss Army Knives to be used in case of emergency, but there might be a couple of options to maybe tilt the Illini 11 one way or another tactically. For instance, if the lineup needs an offensive spark, maybe replace one (or both) of the fullbacks with Kendra Pasquale and/or Makala Woods to generate some attacking creativity and speed down the flanks. I’m suggesting throwing these two in the backline because this team was plagued by a turgid offense at times last season, but I’d expect the Illini to trot out Cathro, Treiterer, JVD, and Stibich every match and have them play every minute this fall if possible.

Big If: If JVD or Treiterer go down with injuries, that’d be extremely bad for the team overall. That seems a bit over-simplistic, but it’s just true. The centerback pairing knows how to play with each other, and replacing either half could cause some major disruptions and defensive breakdowns. Considering nobody else on the team has a whole lot of experience as a centerback, that’d make the transition even more rocky. If the defense turns into a sieve, that puts more pressure on an inexperienced goalkeeper and on an attack that hasn’t been all that explosive the past few years.

Midfield

Kendra Pasquale, RS Jr. | Hope Breslin, RS Sr. | Eileen Murphy, Jr. | Maggie Hillman, Sr.

Hey, more continuity! That’s also good! It’s going to be the same deal as last year. They’re an eclectic bunch where each brings something different to the table, but somehow they mesh together pretty well. Let’s break them down from left to right.

Kendra Pasquale provided was Illinois’ attacking spark last season. She led the team in goals with 5 and assisted on 2 others. She’s good for about 4 absolutely audacious things each match, whether they be passes, runs, footwork, or otherwise. Her creativity is only matched by her speed, which is second-to-none. You need either speed or creativity to be an attacking threat down the wing, and she has both in spades.

Everything revolves around Hope Breslin with this team, both figuratively and literally. The fifth-year senior is the centerest of center midfielders, making her the center of attention for everybody on the pitch. If she’s healthy, she’s the best player on the team, but that’s a massive if. After 4 straight years of terrorizing opposing midfielders and defenses, they’ve learned that the only way to stop Hope is by attempting aggravated battery against Hope. There are two options to protect her against this: 1) have the refs actually do their jobs competently or 2) get some other attacking options around her. The second happened for Breslin this summer with Gotham Reserves. The focus was taken slightly off her, which has allowed her to thrive in NYC. For Illinois, Pasquale is an attacking option, but there aren’t any others in the midfield that are all that reliable. Hope’s ceiling has been clear for 4 years now. It’s about time she is given the space to reach it.

Eileen Murphy is often the biggest player on the field, and she uses that to her advantage. Her passing and footwork are admittedly nothing to write home about, but her aerial prowess makes it tough to take her off the pitch. She scored 2 goals last season, both off headers from corners, both times absolutely Mossing her marker. She’s also a pretty solid target for clearances out of the back, able to come out on top of most aerial duels. Although not exactly a regular occurrence, she has shown a willingness to foray forward with the ball at her feet and uncork a howitzer blast with her right foot from distance. Generally, she sags back a bit in the midfield, acting as sort of a bow for the ship of Illinois’ back four. I do want to be clear, I’m talking mostly about her physical gifts which may make it seem like I’m pessimistic about technical skill by omission, but it’s good enough to where she is not a liability. Being perfectly adequate in the run of play while also having the ability to flip a match on its head in your favor? That’s exactly what you want in just about any soccer player.

Maggie Hillman might just be my favorite player on this roster. Her ball skills are fine, her passing is fine, her creativity is fine…she’s another technically solid player. Add in that she’s back for her fifth year, and she has the experience to know along with her technical solidity. I did say that each midfielder brings something different to the table, and Hillman brings more than just experience. Like Bill Hader hosting a game show, she brings *chaos*. It is uncanny. She scored 2 goals last season, the first of which against Nebraska where she managed to beat 2 Husker defenders to a ball in the box that came out of a collision between the Nebraska goalkeeper’s fists and Hope Breslin’s face. The second came off a mad scramble in the box against Northwestern that was so mad that originally, Hillman wasn’t credited with the goal. She almost had a third where she chipped the Purdue keeper out of nowhere, but it bounced off the post and out (straight to Makena Silber who put it away for the gamewinner).

She’s very good at picking her spots, applying pressure, and getting in good positions to force and take advantage of chaos, but I think this can be taken further. So, I’ve developed two tactical innovations for causing massive amounts of chaos to put Hillman in places to succeed.

1) Cantor: This one technically has infinite possibilities. However, there is a general process to it. First, get the ball from anywhere on the field and pass it to not the middle third, then pass it to not the middle third of that zone, and then to not the middle third of that one, and so on and so forth. Here’s a handy diagram that explains it much better than I can do with words:

Oh boy, that clears practically nothing up. Basically, take this diagram, make it 2-dimensional like a soccer field, and then imagine the red dot is the ball.

Assuming a 120 yard field and a properly inflated size-5 ball, the ball will be bigger than the zone it needs to go into on the sixth pass. The process can be continued to try to get the center of the ball into the smaller and smaller zones, but according to my calculations, Maggie should be glowing like a Super Saiyan at this point.

2) Canter: Demirjian Park is located right across the street from the South Farms and in particular the Horse Research Center, and that could be used to Illinois’ advantage. First, commission a study titled something along the lines of “The Effects of Horses on Collegiate Soccer.” Then, release some very confused horses onto the field in the middle of a match. Because good science requires multiple trials, repeat this every home match. Since the study hasn’t been conducted yet, we don’t have any results, but my hypothesis is that Hillman will thrive in the equine-induced confusion.

Now, this could cause a couple of issues. First, the opposition might have some quibbles with the legality of a stampede in the middle of a match. However, a quick CRTL + f for “horse” on the 2018/19 rulebook and the rule changes for this season comes up empty, so by the Air Bud interpretation, I think this would be allowed. Second, as anyone hiking down a horse trail knows, these animals would tear up the playing surface, but this is a small price to pay for a home field advantage. This could work so well that the program will want to take the show on the road to test replication or to study the horses’ effects in different environment. There might be some logistical nightmares, but there are some excellent solutions to this out there.

So in conclusion, yes, Maggie Hillman is my favorite player on this team, and I hope she goes out with a bang this year, scoring dozens of goals, each more absurd than the last.

Backups and subs: Ok, back to actually talking about soccer. Rayfield cycles her midfielders in and out regularly, so this is a very big question. Henar Urteaga has graduated, so there isn’t another physical midfielder on the roster like Murphy. If I had to guess, I think they might resort to 4-star recruit Ella Karolak, who’s listed as a defender/midfielder on the roster, but that’s very much a shot in the dark from me. As for Breslin, Kennedy Berschel was the preferred backup past season. She improved throughout the year and even scored her first goal in the final game of last season (she learned the secret to the midfield: whenever anyone on your team crosses into the box, go stand at the top of the box because nobody will mark you and the ball will trickle out to you) (I am serious) (If there was a player that just did this and was even mediocre at finishing, they’d score approximately 80 billion goals per season) (I’m a math major and yes I crunched the numbers). Sydney Stephens seems like a creator, which would suit her well for a spot in the central midfield if Breslin is out on the left wing or taking a breather (although I think Syd will be playing elsewhere, which we’ll get to shortly). Pasquale and Breslin could likely be used interchangeably in a pinch as well. Buescher and Ashleigh Lefevre can be serviceable out on the wings, although they aren’t incredibly dangerous going forward. Maybe Lily Lucas will get thrown in there to launch some bombs toward goal.

The loss of Urteaga might loom large, and while Amaya Ellis and Haley Singer moving on might not be as large of losses, they still put in some solid minutes. The question is if anyone can step into their spots and become difference-makers instead of just placeholders. The projected starters in the midfield can be difference-makers, and if the backups can do that as well, it could make this team much more dynamic and tougher to scheme against.

Big If: If Hope Breslin can stay healthy, this team could make a massive step forward. The general idea of Illinois’ attack should be to get Hope into space and let her do her thing. That has proven difficult the past few years as the physical punishment opposing midfielders inflict has slowed her down as the seasons rolled along. A healthy Hope likely means that there were more dangerous pieces around her to occupy some attention, but even if that isn’t the case, a close-to-100% Hope would make everyone around her better.

Forwards

Makena Silber, Sr. | Sydney Stephens, Fr.

Well, it’s now or never for Silber. I think for the past couple of years, I’ve written basically the exact same thing about Mak in these previews. Actually, let’s take a look:

From the 2020 Spring Preview: She’s strong enough to out-muscle defenders but then quick enough to where it’s a problem. Her production hasn’t exactly matched her talent, though. Whether that’s due to just her (maybe) or bad service from the midfield (very likely) remains to be seen.

From the 2019 Fall Preview: Makena Silber has all the tools. As mentioned before, she’s quick enough to where it’s a problem, but she was the strongest player on the pitch even as a freshman last season. Her most impressive skill is her ability to collect a pass or lob, hold it, and then distribute to the other forward or back to the midfield. She has the ability to grab a match by the scruff of the neck, and heavens help the rest of collegiate women’s soccer if she figures it out in the next three years.

Let’s see, very strong, but has enough speed to compliment it (no I will not be using the same turn of phrase again). Clearly has plenty of physical gifts, just hasn’t put it all together. Yep, still more of the same. She’s been killing it down at Asheville City SC over the summer (at least that’s what it seems according to whatever Twitter snippets the team put out), acting slightly more as a creator (again, so it seems from the team’s Twitter account). Mak managed to be Illinois’ second-leading goal scorer, and while 3 goals over 12 matches isn’t atrocious, Silber can definitely do better than that. At least, she definitely can do better than a 3-goals-and-0-assists-over-12-matches clip. In a weird twist of fate, each of those 3 goals were matchwinners (and she should’ve had a fourth that would’ve extended the season). It feels like the pressure has been building up over the 3 previous years, and the dam will finally break this season. Even a soccer idiot like me can see that she’s incredible. This might just be the time that the stats finally catch up to that.

The biggest uncertainty facing this team roster-wise is who will play just under Silber. The go-to was Summer Garrison for most of last season, but at the end of the season, she was the backup right fullback. Meredith Johnson-Monfort got some run for a couple of matches at CAM, but she didn’t produce a whole lot (to be fair, she played a whole 124 minutes on the year). The other option used was Hope Breslin, but she was only moved forward as sort of a backup or when she was playing half-injured near the end of the season. It was a revolving door that didn’t exactly produce much.

Quick tangent: this might be why Mak hasn’t exactly racked up goals. The player that really put the ball on a platter for her the most last season was Pasquale from the left flank. That’s an outstanding option to have, but if it were possible to compliment that with a creative force closer to Mak, that would give this team plenty more dimensions in its attack.

Quick tangent off that tangent: I’m going to defend the 3 players I just mentioned above a bit. Garrison is a brilliant player, but her brilliance doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet. She played a massive role in two massive goals last season, but she only recorded one assist in the books (the non-assist being a run to the front post dragging 2 defenders with her which left Silber wide open on the back post to turn home a cross from Pasquale for the game-winner against Michigan State, and the actual assist on a devilish turn into space in the box that caused a bunch of chaos which resulted in Pasquale’s game-winner against Northwestern). Unfortunately, those two examples in that very long parenthetical highlight why I think it might be possible to make an improvement at the CAM position: Summer is second-to-none when it comes to making an existing attack even better, but she has room for improvement in initiating an attack. As for MJM, I think she’s more an out-and-out striker than a CAM. I have Breslin slotted as a true center mid, but she’s been playing more of an attacking role for Gotham Reserves this summer, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had more minutes up front. (end of tangents)

My guess is that it’ll be Sydney Stephens at CAM primarily. The Waterloo native has trod a similar path to Luke Ford from southern Illinois to Athens, Georgia (where both saw spotty playing time their first year) back to the University of Illinois. Depending on where you look on UGA’s website, Syd either played 724 minutes over 9 matches as a Bulldog and put up the soccer version of a 724 trillion or she played 168 minutes over 8 matches where she put 2/2 shots on goal and picked up a yellow card. Those aren’t confidence-inducing numbers for Illini fans, but she was a top-150 recruit out of high school, and she comes out of the St. Louis Scott Gallagher system which always produces quality talent (see my earlier comment about SLU, where 40% of their players are SLSG products). This summer, Syd has tallied a respectable 3 goals and 2 assists for the SLSG squad in UWS play.

That’s all fine and dandy but also very wishy washy. I have two pieces of Twitter evidence for why I’m leaning towards Stephens as the attacking mid. First, here’s what assistant coach Jeff Freeman tweeted out the day Syd announced she was transferring to Illinois.

Second, here’s a tiny taste of what she can do. First off, excellent ball in from not-Syd, but everything Syd did from there is outstanding:

Backups: My depth chart after Silber at striker with the first backup being Zoey Kollhoff. Kollhoff seems to be the heir-apparent to Maggie Hillman’s queen of chaos throne at Illinois. She showed her aptitude as a poacher-extraordinaire last fall, and her one assist last season was originally credited to her as a goal off a mad scramble in the box against Northwestern. It was changed to an assist for Zoey because the player stuck in the middle with Kollhoff and actually scored was Hillman. Ask me to describe this goal in about 50 years, and chances are I’ll talk about Hillman emerging from Lake Michigan to hand Kollhoff a sword shaped like a Mandelbrot Set.

From there, I’ve narrowed the third rotation spot down to 4 options:

1) Peyton Willie. The redshirt junior was Silber’s backup until she went down with a leg injury. If she’s fully recovered and back to her normal level, she might actually jump Kollhoff into the second spot, simply because she’d be more of a like-for-like sub for Silber.

2) Meredith Johnson-Monfort. Of the 4 options I’m presenting here, she had the most minutes this past spring. However, most of those came at CAM, but I think she’s better suited as a striker. Also, she’s a local product from Mahomet-Seymour, so we have no choice but to root for her.

3) Julia Eichenbaum. No, I haven’t given my seat up on the Julia Eichenbaum Hype Train despite her only playing 67 minutes last season (please, I ride the Illini/Saluki regularly, I can handle a lot when it comes to trains). The problem right now facing Eichenbaum is that she’s likely too small to be the lone striker against B1G teams. She would thrive in Rayfield’s 3-5-2 she used in years past where the two forwards were a tall-and-small pair, and theoretically it wouldn’t be too hard to adjust a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-4-2, especially since Rayfield likes to sub in and out the 1-1 up front as a unit. On the other hand, I have to assume Julia has been told her whole life she’s too small, and all she’s done is smash goal-scoring records left and right, so it’d be extremely dumb for me to count her out as a lone striker. Plus, she had a nice summer playing for PSA Monmouth in the WPSL, scoring 3 goals and assisting on a bunch of others as well.

4) Maeve Jones. Ah, a freshman, the ultimate wildcard. The top prospect in the Illini’s 2021 recruiting class, Jones comes from the FC Dallas academy. She put up absolutely bonkers numbers at her high school in Texas which helped her garner a 4-star rating and top-150 recruiting ranking in her class.

Pick one of those 4 to go along with Kollhoff and Silber, and chances are you’ll have the regular striker rotation (although their styles are different enough that the rotation could be adjusted based on opponent). The attacking mid spot is more of a question mark, as shown by me at most penciling in Stephens. The second option would probably be Breslin, with Berschel replacing her at center mid. There’s also a chance that I’m projecting Stephens at the wrong spot. Another option is Syd taking Hope’s spot in the midfield, which then would allow Hope to move forward to the attacking mid role. I’d also expect Garrison to still get some time at CAM primarily, although as one of the team’s designated Swiss Army Knives, she might be called to other positions in an emergency.

Overview

Since you made through all that, here’s a handy depth chart for you to see how wrong I am when the season kicks off:

Last year’s team was ok, finishing the season 6-5-1, which was good for second in the western division. However, there was still pretty clear gap between the Illini and the upper echelon of the B1G, and Illinois was not particularly close to making the NCAA tournament. Yes, part of that was due to the Big Ten not playing a nonconference schedule, but the other part of that was due to a few weaknesses in the team as a whole, and even though getting almost every big piece back is definitely a positive for this coming season, that means those weaknesses will come along too.

The team started Spring 2021 with their offense in a rut, trying to connect passes up the wings with little to show for that. They adjusted, playing more direct to Silber and being more aggressive with the fullbacks, pushing them up and overlapping them with the wings. That’s a good start, but there are pieces, particularly with the fullbacks that spark the offense even more as I highlighted before.

Before I went off on an insane tangent, I mentioned that each midfielder in my projected starting lineup brings something different to the game, but it’s what they don’t bring that looms large. The piece that could take this team from good to great is a box-to-box, tough as nails central midfielder. Breslin isn’t quite that (although we haven’t seen her fully healthy in a while), and Murphy isn’t quite that either. That’s why I think Sydney Stephens might be the key to unlocking this whole team. The midfield tends to disappear for stretches, so if she can do some dirty work while providing something going forward, or if she spends most of the time commanding the central midfield while Hope plays up higher, that would be massive.

The one starter that isn’t back is Sample in goal, but I feel that whoever wins the battle between Cili and Jackson will be more than adequate, especially with such an experienced back four in front of them. It all comes down to the central attacking midfielder. Turn that question mark into an emphatic answer, and this team could be special.

The 2021 Illini soccer season kicks off on Aug. 8 against Eastern Illinois at 7 p.m. at Demirjian Park. Regular season begins Aug. 19 at Mizzou at 7 p.m.