After a solid weekend against Ohio MAC teams, the Illini soccer team traveled slightly north to continue their winning ways. However, they faced a much stiffer challenge Friday afternoon in their conference opener at No. 21 Michigan.
The match got off to a dream start for the Illini. In the second minute, some good defensive work by Hope Breslin and Kendra Pasquale led to a Wolverine turnover in the back. Breslin slipped Pasquale in behind the Michigan defense and was eventually tripped up by a recovering defender, earning the penalty. Pasquale stepped up to take it, but her initial and second efforts were saved. However, Makenna Silber crashed the net and bungled the ball over the line, giving the Illini a very early advantage.
The next 13 or so minutes were also dominated by the Illini, with Maeve Jones and Silber getting multiple good looks that came to nothing. Then, Michigan started to take over, playing the last 30 minutes of the half mostly in Illinois’ end. They didn’t produce too many dangerous opportunities, but for the couple they did, freshman goalkeeper Naomi Jackson was up to the task to keep the score 1-0 Illinois heading into the half.
Illinois came out of the locker rooms with the bus firmly in park, as shown by a 22-2 second half shot discrepancy in favor of Michigan. For 35 minutes, the gear did not change. The Illini defense once again did a decent job absorbing pressure, limiting the Wolverines to mostly shots from outside the box. Michigan did produce a couple of gilt-edge chances, but Jackson made some astounding saves.
A half of soccer lasts 45 minutes however, and in the 80th minute, Michigan finally broke through. Off the scraps of a corner, Jackson pushed away a cross…right to a Wolverine, who headed it towards an open goal, and Meredith Haakenson made sure it made it into the net to equalize.
Hey, what if Jackson got another great save in the 85th minute to help the match get to overtime? Wouldn’t that be neat?
The first frame of OT was fairly even. Both teams mustered three shots apiece, but they came to nothing. Jackson did make another decent save, even if it wasn’t as impressive as her earlier efforts.
Once again, Michigan found their footing in the second half. They controlled play and applied pressure, eventually resulting in a golden goal in the 106th minute. A good Wolverine through ball and a mess of marking in behind from Illinois left Sammi Woods wide open on the doorstep as Illini defenders flailed around her. She kept a cool head and put the finishing touches on a Michigan win.
A couple things:
- We’ll start with our Jackson update, because good GOD what a match from her. Granted, I don’t exactly have an encyclopedic knowledge of Illini soccer, but over the past few years, I can’t recall an Illini goalkeeping performance quite like this. Actually…(rummages through record books)…yes, this was the most saves by an Illini goalkeeper in a single match since Sarah Anderson in 2000 and puts Jackson in a tie for 3rd all-time for saves in single match in program history. Not bad for your second-ever collegiate match. Beyond that, each save was nearly perfect. She caught what she needed to catch, tipped out what needed to be tipped out, and made reaction saves when she needed to make a reaction save. It was simply astounding, and she was clearly the player of the game. The first goal may have been slightly her fault, but that would be awfully harsh to hold against a TRUE FRESHMAN in her SECOND-EVER MATCH AT THE COLLEGIATE LEVEL. The more I think about it, the more it confuses and possibly excites me for the future, so I need to move on before I get my hopes up.
- Schuler update: got the start again and saw four other minutes of action. We will discuss this later because it is part of a larger point I would like to make.
- The first quarter hour of the match produced some of the best soccer I’ve ever seen out of the Illini. It was utterly dominant. Illinois seemed to win every second and 50-50 ball, and really, the Illini should’ve cashed in more. Both Silber and Jones had great looks from good enough positions where if they just put it on frame away from the keeper, they would’ve scored. The argument can be made that this game could’ve been put to bed quickly if Illinois just calmed down a tiny bit.
- The major baffling thing about Illinois holding Michigan to only 1 goal in regulation is the defense Illinois trotted out. The center halves were Angie Galo, a true freshman, and Eileen Murphy, a recently converted midfielder. They had not seen playing time together as a pairing, and they really held up, especially considering the midfield and attack weren’t providing any release valves for the massive pressure Michigan provided. Yes, I went through the outstanding play of Jackson, but Michigan had 35 (that’s a thirty-five with a 3 and a 5) shots, and most were not dangerous. A lack of shots for Michigan would’ve meant that the Illini midfield was controlling the game, but a lack of good shots means that the defense was holding up without much help up the field. So, credit to Galo and Murphy, a pairing that held up well and will only get better with time.
- Coach Rayfield’s squad rotation was…fascinating. Maddie Mariani started over Sydney Stephens. Ella Karolak saw her first action at the collegiate level. Aleah Treiterer played 102 out of 106 possible minutes at right fullback and was relieved for a mighty 4 by Lauren Stibich. Julia Eichenbaum saw some time (woo!). The most confusing choice was Rayfield’s choice to replace Maeve Jones at the 9 with Mackenzie Schuler in the second overtime period. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am on the record that I want Schuler to have the most insane career statistics possible, and yes, somebody would’ve needed to scrape me off the ceiling if she contributed statistically to a gamewinner. However, I think there were better options available that would’ve given Illinois a better shot at a golden goal, such as Eichenbaum or Abby Lynch. I have some other suggestions, like Zoey Kollhoff (a golden goal situation seems like the perfect time for a poacher extraordinaire) or Makala Woods, but considering they didn’t even see the field, there’s a chance they were unavailable. However, credit where credit is due, Rayfield’s personnel choices mostly worked and seemed to have some logic, but that last one is a bit tougher to defend, especially considering the result.
- Some random comments about individual players: Breslin played some of the best defense of her career during the first half. Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal picked up an early yellow and did a good job avoiding a second booking. This match showed how important Maggie Hillman is for controlling and mucking up a midfield. They weren’t perfect chances, but Kendra Pasquale would probably like her two shots in the first overtime half back. Karolak was a bit shaky, but having only 12 minutes against ISU under her belt, playing her 37 minutes against Michigan was a bit like throwing her to the wolve(rine)s.
- Well, it’s always interesting to see how another school treats their women’s soccer program. First, the positive about Michigan women’s soccer but not their team: Their Twitter account is outstanding, especially during games. Whoever is running it deserves a raise, because they first know their soccer, are willing to be honest, and know what information and insight is necessary to give a fan who can only read the feed a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Now, pardon me as I go look for a term that means “subtweet” but for blogging…alright, that came up empty. The negative is clearly the production quality on the stream. It was simply a camera pointed at the action. Like, commentators are hit and miss, particularly college soccer commentators, but they do give an air of quality to the production. A score bug is absolutely necessary in this day and age. Also, the end walls at the field seem dangerously close to the action, but that’ll be tougher to fix. Just get me a score bug next time, Michigan Athletic Department, and I’ll be happy.
- Looking at this big picture, yes, it’s not great to lose your conference opener, but it’s tough not to feel optimistic after that performance. Michigan is currently the #21 team in the country and will be duking it out at the top of the standings for the B1G crown with the likes of Penn State, Ohio State, Rutgers, and Wisconsin. Illinois took them to overtime! On the road! And it’s not hard to squint at this game and see a path where Illinois wins it! That’s what good teams do! Am I saying that Illinois is good? No. Am I saying that Illinois did something that a good team would do? Yes. And yes, the stats favored Michigan heavily, but Illinois was focusing solely on defense for the whole second half, so of course the Wolverines would rack up a billion shots. As I said before, many were not all that dangerous. Not many teams will beat Michigan on the road, and Illinois gave them all they could handle. It’s tough not to feel optimistic about that.
- The bloodbath that is and will be B1G women’s soccer got underway across the conference this past weekend, with each team playing just one match instead of the normal 2. The biggest result is likely Rutgers holding on at home for a 2-1 win over Penn State. The two Eastern cellar dwellers from last season seem to have started climbing the stairs or ladder up to the main floor, with Michigan State defeating the Hoosiers 1-0 in Bloomington and Maryland giving Ohio State a decent battle but falling short with a respectable 2-1 scoreline. Out west, Minnesota finally gave up a goal this season, and then gave up another for good measure in a 2-1 loss at home to Wisconsin. Iowa held serve at home against Northwestern with a 2-1 victory. Finally, the Purdue Boilermakers won by the only multi-goal margin all weekend with a 3-1 win at Nebraska. This really just confirms that there are no easy games in this conference this year.
- Up next for the Illini is the juggernaut that is the Purdue Boilermakers. Illinois will look to get back to .500 in conference play on Thursday night. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. CT, and the match will be streamed on BTN+.