After two comprehensive losses to North Carolina and Butler, the Illini looked to get back to the winning ways they had during the first weekend of the season. However, with Xavier coming to Urbana with a perfect record of 4-0, this looked to be a tough task for this Illini squad.
It looked to be extremely tough out of the gates. The Musketeers were on the front foot from kickoff, keeping the Illini penned in on their side of the field. This led to some bad giveaways from the Illini in dangerous positions for Xavier, and eventually the Musketeers cashed in. In the 12th minute, a poor Illini clearance led to Xavier midfielder Emma Marcus finding herself with the ball in space, so she tried her luck from distance. What resulted can be described many ways, but I’ll go with the clichés of “top bins,” “upper 90,” and “banger.” You can use whatever word you want to describe it, but the important thing is that Xavier led 1-0 fairly early in the match.
This deficit finally woke the Illini up, who had their best chance of the half only seconds later. Makenna Silber got behind the defense still in the 12th minute and tried to one-time her shot past an onrushing Xavier goalkeeper, but it slipped narrowly wide. Otherwise, Xavier had the general run of play during the first half, forcing a couple of outstanding saves from Illini goalkeeper Julia Cili, but they were unable to convert any of them. The Musketeers took a deserved 1-0 lead to the halftime break.
The Illini came out of the locker rooms inspired for the second half. After some early pressure, Kendra Pasquale forced a turnover in Xavier’s defensive midfield in the 50th minute. After working to find some space, she fired a tricky shot that the Musketeer keeper spilled, and Silber was at the doorstep to clean up the mess and equalize.
50' | After a @kendrapasquale shot, @makktruck cleans up by putting the ball into the back of the net for the #Illini!— Illinois Soccer (@IlliniSoccer) September 3, 2021
However, the Musketeers respond minutes later.
Illinois 1 pic.twitter.com/32IKqVjz9H
Xavier was quick to respond. In the 51st minute, some confusion in the Illini backline allowed Xavier forward Chloe Netzel to beat everyone to a ball in the Illini box. She blasted her shot past Cili, who was very much hung out to dry, to restore the Musketeers’ one-goal advantage.
The next 39 minutes saw some desperation from the Illini, who were able to muster 9 shots and multiple dangerous chances, but none were able to find the target and trouble Xavier’s keeper. The closest the Illini came was in the 87th minute, when Hope Breslin rose up and headed the ball right off the top left corner of the frame. It’s difficult to score when you don’t shoot the ball at the goal, and Xavier was content to kill the clock, putting the final score at Musketeers 2, Illini 1.
A couple things:
- I’m going to start off talking about Australian Rules Football (I promise I will make this relevant). Footy scores are presented in this kind of weird way. They don’t just say what a team’s final score is. Instead, they write it out like A.B.C. The A is the number of goals the team scored, which are worth 6 points apiece. Basically, like most other sports, you want to score goals in footy. The B is the number of behinds the team scored. They’re worth 1 point and mean the team almost or probably should’ve scored a goal but just missed. Then C is the team’s total score. A good example would be 11.14.80, which is what the Collingwood Magpies put together in their win this past June against the Melbourne Demons, the top team in the AFL this season. That’s pretty average, but every so often you get a hysterical scoreline like 3.25.43, which means that a team played very well and had plenty of chances but couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn door with their kicks. That’s what I’m reminded of when I look at Thursday’s stats and see Illinois had 18 shots but only 4 on target.
- Two weeks ago, I was gushing about the Illini attack, wondering how anyone would stop them because they could throw so many players at you. Well, teams have stopped the Illini, and the Musketeers made the key to stopping Illinois so painfully clear that even I could see what was happening. Yes, Illinois has a bunch of players to throw at a defense, but they all have the exact same idea: get behind the defense. The counter to this is to play your defense extremely deep so the Illini have no space to run into, which is what Xavier did.
- The counter to this counter is to have the Illini forwards drop back and occupy the acres of space between the opposing midfield and opposing backline. That’s an adjustment Illini coach Janet Rayfield said she made at the halftime break, and yes, it worked. It’s not a perfect stat, but the Illini attack attempted 12 shots in the second half versus 6 in the first. It’s very frustrating to me that it took until halftime to do this because a soccer idiot like me could see that this was what Xavier was doing in the first half, and even a soccer idiot like me could come up with a solution to this problem. Like, shouldn’t this have been an option from the get-go? If you’re having trouble getting in behind their defense, take what they’re giving you instead? Again, I’m a soccer idiot, so take this with a grain of salt, but this feels like poor preparation.
- The last two matches have had a worrying trend where Illinois seems to sleepwalk until the opposition scores. Granted, this was only a poor 11-minute stretch as opposed to the Butler match with 40 or so minutes of zombie Illini play, but I would like to see Illinois come out on the front foot or even an even footing out of the gate.
- A final vaguely negative thing: Angie Galo got the start as a center half and the full 90 minutes tonight (this isn’t the negative thing). Her passing and general athleticism more than warranted her selection (this also isn’t the negative thing). She generally plays a very solid game, especially for a freshman (we are nearly to the negative thing). However, she looked very much like a freshman on that second goal (this is the negative thing).
- Cili update: this was her best match so far. It was kind of a miracle that Xavier only scored 2 on her. Part of that was because Xavier missed some massive chances, some of which were caused by her mistakes, but there were a few times where she stood on her head to keep the ball out of the net. It was the ultimate “talented but inexperienced” performance.
- Schuler update: didn’t play long and didn’t have to intervene at all, which is probably good if you’re rooting for an Illini win but definitely bad if you like chaotic fun. Anyway, we now have video of Schuler’s exceptional performance against UNC. Please, somebody within the Illinois athletic department, go through and give Mackenzie a save in her stats.
- Some mostly positive sentences that weren’t fleshed out enough to make into salient paragraphs: Eileen Murphy played so much better on Thursday than she did the previous weekend. Maggie Hillman didn’t play the second half due to soreness in her knee, according to Rayfield in her postgame press conference. Pasquale was put in the midfield in the second half, and I think she should be there more often. We got only half of the Hope Breslin ExperienceTM on Thursday, which was a frustration yellow card (the other half almost happened but hit the woodwork instead). Canadian Ashley Cathro put in a very good shift at left fullback, both in shutting down Musketeer wingers and making some attacking forays forward, and I’m happy to report that she hasn’t been stranded in America for the past 18 months (I made sure to ask at the postgame press conference, she made it back home this past December). Xavier decided to start killing the clock with 15 minutes remaining, which is infuriating but probably should’ve been expected, considering they have now won all 5 regular season matches, each of them by one-goal margins.
- Overall, according to our barometer, this is somewhere between an average and bad season. Xavier is much better than expected (again, undefeated, and they’ve beaten Northwestern and SLU along the way) which should be considered, but the Illini just haven’t put together the results of a tournament team so far. They’ll likely need to make a run during B1G play, and the conference schedule is set up nicely for such a thing. However, it would’ve been nice if Illinois didn’t have to rely on that.
- Before that conference play hits, Illinois has one final MACtion-packed roadtrip. Up first is a trip to Bowling Green on Thursday, which kicks off at 7 PM and will be streamed on YouTube. This is followed by a short bus ride over to Toledo for a Sunday match at 1 PM against the Rockets. It will be streamed on either ESPN3 or ESPN+.