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Illini Soccer sweeps MACtion-packed weekend

Wins at Bowling Green and Toledo cap a peculiar 2021 non-conference schedule.

Craig Pessman / Illinois Athletics

After dropping all three matches in a homestand, the Fighting Illini looked to reverse course and get some momentum going into B1G play at the tail end of the non-conference slate. Familiar faces in unfamiliar places awaited, but the Illini found a return to form to take care of business.

Up first was Bowling Green and Madi Wolfbauer, the former Illini player who transferred to the plains of Ohio and became an All-MAC forward. Illinois started out with the general run of play on Thursday night, although the Falcons had some bright moments streaming forward in the attack. However, the Illini would have something to show for their control of the early portion of the match. In the 16th minute, Sydney Stephens put in some excellent work down the right wing and somehow found Maeve Jones in acres of space near the penalty spot with a cross. The freshman took her time and nonchalantly put the ball into the net to give Illinois the early 1-0 lead.

It wouldn’t stay that way for long. In the 26th minute, Makena Silber beat everyone to a ball that Stephens chipped over the Bowling Green defense. Her one-timer went off the far post and in to double Illinois’ advantage.

Illinois would tack on another before the break. In the 39th minute, Kendra Pasquale got free in the Falcon box, firing two shots in quick succession, the first of which was blocked, the second of which was saved. The ball eventually trickled out to Stephens, who laid it off to Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal. JVD took two touches to free herself and then launched a wicked missile that found its way through a mass of players in front of it and snuck inside the far post. Six minutes later, Illinois went to the locker room with a 3-0 advantage.

The Falcons came out of the break with a much brighter attack. Bowling Green had a few dangerous chances that were either squandered or saved by Naomi Jackson, but after half an hour, they broke through. In the 76th minute, Wolfbauer attempted speedy Falcon winger Lacee Bethea in behind. A flubbed touch from Illini fullback Summer Garrison left Bethea all alone, bearing down on Jackson’s goal. She made no mistake to grab one back for Bowling Green and give the Falcons some hope…

Which the Illini promptly killed off. In the 83rd minute, Abby Lynch went streaking down the left wing and looped in a cross. I’m not exactly sure what Maggie Hillman did from there. She stuck out a leg and got a touch on the ball, which trickled just inside the near post to give Illinois a 4-1 lead

But Abby Lynch was out for blood at this point. In the 87th minute she found acres of space down the left wing, but instead of crossing, she cut around a defender, who had no choice but to bring her down. Lynch then stepped up to the penalty spot and took a perfect penalty, straight into the top left corner, putting the bow on top of a spectacular 5-1 win for the Fighting Illini.

After a short drive slightly north, the Illini met up with the Toledo and former all-B1G Illini goalkeeper and current Rocket assistant coach Jaelyn Cunningham. Illinois got off to a bright start once again, producing good chances for both Pasquale and Hope Breslin in the first three minutes, but Pasquale’s effort was saved and Breslin’s header looped over the bar.

Toledo would get the next big chance. In the 8th minute, a ball slipped behind the Illini back 4, where Rocket forward Stephanie Currie latched onto it. However, Jackson came off her line and got big to tip the Toledo forward’s just wide and out for a corner. Besides matching yellow cards for each team, nothing else of importance happened in the first half, although Illinois had a slight advantage in the run of play. However, run of play means doesn’t necessarily mean goals, so the Illini and Rockets went to the halftime break scoreless.

Illinois made something happen quickly after the break. In the 52nd minute, Silber found some room to run at the Toledo back line and cut between a couple of Rockets before firing a shot. Unfortunately, Rocket goalkeeper Emma Buotorwick made an exceptional save to keep the game on even terms.

Toledo would return the favor though. In the 64th minute, Toledo forward Ellie Pool got in behind the Illini defense and put her boot through the ball close to goal. Naomi Jackson was up to the task though, making a fantastic reflex save, and the Illini defense was able to clear their lines before any Rocket could gather the rebound.

From thereabouts onward, Illinois started to take over. In the 72nd minute, Ashleigh Lefevre was played in behind the Rocket defense by Jones, but the Aussie’s shot sailed over the bar. Breslin also had a golden chance in the 78th minute, getting to a ball before Buotorwick, but she looped her shot over a wide-open net.

But that pressure would finally yield results in the 79th minute. Stephens once again found some space down the right wing and put in a cross that originally found Lefevre, but the Aussie played the ball in to Breslin who was even more central in the box. As she was settling the ball to turn and shoot, Toledo defender Ashton Cassel got her boot up high, which the referee deemed as dangerous, awarding Illinois an indirect free kick from right around the penalty spot.

The resulting play was absolute chaos. Pasquale laid it off to Breslin, who blasted a shot that Buotorwick parried away. Because this was chaos, the ball fell to Hillman, who also blasted a shot that Buotorwick punched away. The ball landed in the middle of a mass of Toledo players, but Stephens came flying in and got a touch on the ball…which trickled…ever so slowly…and as players dove at it…desperate to get a touch…everybody missed…and the ball…rolled ever so gently…inside the back post. The beautiful game! Illinois led 1-0 late. The next 10 minutes were seen out with minimal trouble by the Illini to secure the win by the same margin.

A couple things:

  • We have to start with Sydney Stephens because she had herself a weekend. A hattrick of assists in one half of play against Bowling Green, followed by scoring the game-winner against Toledo? That’ll do quite nicely. I watched her assist to Maeve approximately 500 times trying to clip it from YouTube to share elsewhere, and she earned that one, finding a pocket of space and then throwing the ball into the mixer. I watched her second assist to Silber a bit less, but I still can’t quite wrap my head around her putting that ball in the perfect spot and then Silber catching up with it. Anyway, she’s good, and statistically, she’s the engine that’s currently making the attack click, leading the team in assists by a fair margin with 5 so far on the young season.

  • Now, part of the reason Syd is making the attack click is because she’s good. The other part is because of some fascinating formation/personnel adjustments Rayfield made. I think they’re sticking with a 4-3-3 still, but the players and the ways those players are playing in those positions has changed drastically. I think there are 2 main personnel switches that made the attack click, especially against Bowling Green. The first is one we got a hint of in the second half of the Xavier loss: Kendra Pasquale in the midfield. Each Illini midfielder has to cover a ton of ground for the formation to hold together. Hillman and Stephens have done so all season so far, but the third spot was kind of a revolving door. Enter Pasquale who is more than happy to eat up some ground and get stuck in. She’s willing to be a destroyer, but she also can turn and run at a defense with the ball after she forces a giveaway. It’s a dangerous combination and should stress just about any back line Illinois comes up against in conference play.
  • The other is Maeve Jones. She might be the most prototypical striker I’ve seen play for the Illini (granted, I haven’t been following them too closely until a couple years ago, but still). I think her main focus was on hold-up play. Like, there were multiple times in both matches where she received the ball and either stopped with it or kinda walked along with it. She might be a false 9? I mean, the other Illini forwards are more often than not looking to get behind the defense, so if Maeve can pull some opposing defenders forward, that’ll open up space behind them. She’s not necessarily looking to play those wingers in behind, but instead she’s waiting for the Illini midfield to get forward a bit and play it to one of them. Plus, she’s also willing to get back and help out with defense at times, which takes some pressure off the midfield. I’ve only seen both of them a couple times, but she plays a lot like her fellow FC Dallas product Ricardo Pepi. Couple this with Pasquale occupying a ton of attention in the middle of the park, and you create enough space for Stephens to start cooking.
  • Rayfield made approximately 50 other changes to her depth chart for this past weekend, but I’ll go in depth the other very important one in this bullet point. First, JVD plays as the backup defensive midfielder now. I like this decision because she can make the easy pass better than Eileen Murphy, especially when under a bit of pressure (my only qualm is that she needs to dial it back slightly with the slide tackles). That means Murphy has to go somewhere, and I don’t think the coaching staff quite has a specific role figured out for her yet. In the Bowling Green match, she eventually came in near the end of the match as a striker, which is mean because she can physically overpower opposing back lines. In the Toledo match, she started as a center half alongside Aleah Treiterer (I’m guessing that Angie Galo was injured, but I’m not entirely certain), which I like because there’s less pressure on her when she is trying to make a pass. Ok, here’s what the coaches have figured out: Murphy needs to play either at the front or back of the formation. She hasn’t been great so far at being a link in a passing chain, especially under pressure, but she’s too valuable to keep off the field, especially for set pieces. So, the simple solution, while unorthodox, is to play her either as the striker or as a center half.
  • Here’s an updated depth chart which might explain things better than my ramblings:

A few notes and caveats to it though: The first-choice lineup can and will switch positions at will, especially in the forward line (like, Silber and Breslin switch sides of the field pretty regularly). The fullbacks have gotten more freedom to get forward as the season has gone along, and the wings have taken more of a role getting back along the way as well.

  • Also, I have no clue how many of these personnel choices are due to injury and which are just due to coaching decisions, but here is a list of 4 players I haven’t mentioned that I would like to see more of: Kennedy Berschel (looked very good against Mizzou but her minutes have tailed off since), Makala Woods (has not seen the field yet this season, but based on what she did over the summer/past fall, she’d be an outstanding fullback), Zoey Kollhoff (I like chaos), and Julia Eichenbaum (still on that hype train).
  • A couple of absolutely pointless notes that I need to include (hey, we’re almost 2000 words into this anyway, what’s a couple more?). First, a duck invaded the pitch in Bowling Green on Thursday night, eventually causing a stoppage in play and providing an excellent teaching opportunity. First, senior Kendra Pasquale chased it with some simple claps:

Outstanding form here. Claps to scare but not endanger the duck. Not very energy intensive from Kenny, so overall this is textbook. Let’s compare that to freshman Maeve Jones:

Oh no no no. The high kicks? I mean, it worked, but you could’ve had roadkill in northeast Ohio on Thursday night. That takes some effort on Jones’ part and needs to be fixed.

I think this drastic difference between Kenny and Maeve comes down to experience. It’s simply a freshman mistake that can only be fixed with time.

The other pointless note is that JVD decided to put her hair up in more of a bun at times against Toledo. This bothers me slightly because I have certain visual cues that help me identify players quickly, particularly when I’m watching a match on a screen (for instance, Pasquale has a very distinct gait, Murphy is big, Treiterer wears her hair in two very long braids). My visual cue for JVD was her long ponytail, so her changing that up threw me for a loop. However, it fell out a time or two, so if she’s doing that to confuse her opponents, I’ll be more than fine with it.

  • Cili update: Out for both matches due to concussion protocol. That’s…not great, but it brings us to our newest segment:
  • Jackson update: The freshman played well! She made a couple of good saves against Bowling Green, even if that wouldn’t have mattered, and she came up big against Toledo. The biggest difference between her and Cili is that Jackson seems much calmer in the back. She didn’t attempt as many flying punches this weekend as Cili usually does, but whether that’s due to goalkeeping or lack of opportunities remains to be seen. I’m generally a fan of chaos, but I have an exception when it comes to general goalkeeping, so right now I prefer Jackson. However, this was a very small sample size, and depending on how the concussion protocol goes, we might learn more come this Friday.
  • Schuler update: Soccer scorekeepers are mean and hate fun. Toledo started off Sunday’s match by shooting the ball at her from midfield. She caught it cleanly. This should be counted as a save. It was not. The goal for the rest of the year is for Mackenzie Schuler to get a save and to have the scorekeepers record it as a save. Also, look at the third backup at the right fullback up above…yeah! I know! She’s doing everything! She put in 6 minutes as an outfield player against Bowling Green (all of it during crunch time) and 23 in Sunday’s very tense match. Hell yeah. The secondary goal is to have her absolutely fill her career stats sheet except for Goals Against and Goals Against Average. She has 0’s everywhere except for minutes and shots faced (UNC apparently attempted one early), and I will be sure to update you if anything changes.
  • So after non-conference play, what do we make of Illinois soccer? According to the barometer, this was a pretty good weekend, even if the results were flipped. This team is slightly above average according to the records I gave in the barometer. Getting to that slightly above average has been a trip. Winning everything on the road and dropping everything at home is not a thing that usually happens. Part of that is due to the quality of opponent, but Illinois still played so much better away from Demirjian. Either the Illini will figure out how to bring that quality back to Chambana or they’ll learn that their road form was a mirage. Frankly, I don’t have a clue which it will be, but I know Illinois looked like they figured something out this past 2 matches. Figuring out how to win a close match at Toledo seems like a valuable lesson to learn going into conference play, though.
  • Speaking of which, the Big Ten is going to be wild. Nobody has a losing record. The team currently in last according to the standings is Nebraska, but their losses are all pretty quality (I’m counting Omaha as a rival which means it’s a quality loss). There are two undefeated teams after non-conference play. Michigan State is sitting at the top of the conference, but their strength of schedule is…uh…lacking, to put it kindly. Minnesota is also undefeated and haven’t conceded a single goal yet this season (they have managed to play 3 scoreless draws in 8 matches). Three teams are currently ranked (as of September 7th, so this will likely change). Rutgers is 9th (they dropped 2 matches since then so they’ll likely fall). Penn State is 14th (but they went on the road and beat NC State and #3 Virginia, so they’ll likely rise). Michigan is 16th (they beat Cincy and tied Louisville, so I think they’ll stay right around there).
  • Speaking of the Wolverines, Illinois is making a visit to Ann Arbor on Friday. Using the common opponents test, Michigan looks to have an advantage. They defeated Bowling Green 2-1 on August 22 and opened the season with a 5-0 drubbing of Butler in Indianapolis. If you want a positive spin on it, Butler made a goalkeeping switch after Michigan’s fourth goal, and the replacement has played every single minute since then. The Wolverines have had Illinois’ number in the recent past, winning 6 of 7. The Illini will be looking to continue their good road form and buck that history when they kick off at 4 PM on BTN+.