Soccer drops to third in Big Ten

By Steve Contorno

After last weekend’s home loss to Ohio State, the women’s soccer team is no longer in a tie for first place in the Big Ten. The 2-0 defeat dropped Illinois to third in the conference and from a No. 10 national ranking to No. 24. Despite all of that, Illinois still has a chance to the win the Big Ten outright.

“(Playing for the Big Ten championship) gives us something to fight for Friday afternoon,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “Every game we’re fighting just to keep control. We just want to be in charge of our own destiny. One game at a time, we’re going to fight to keep our destiny out of somebody else’s hands.”

Illinois (8-5, 4-1) still finds itself in control because Indiana and Penn State, which are currently tied for first place, played to a scoreless tie on Sunday. Illinois beat Penn State and has yet to play Indiana, and with five games left the Illini still have a chance to take over the conference standings – if they can get past this weekend.

On Friday, Illinois heads to East Lansing to face Michigan State (5-7-1, 1-4) and then to Ann Arbor on Sunday to face the Spartan’s in-state rival, Michigan (5-5-4, 1-2-2). Both teams have struggled this season in both Big Ten and non-conference games. Michigan is averaging less than a goal a game, and Michigan State allows almost one more goal than they score per game.

Michigan State also has the second worst save percentage in conference play, only saving 69 percent of opponents’ shots and has yet to shut out a Big Ten opponent.

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But Rayfield’s team is nursing several injuries going in to this weekend. She said both freshman forward Chichi Nweke and sophomore defender Jessica Levitt are “questionable” for Friday’s game. Nweke is the team’s goal and point leader, and Levitt has only been off the field for 45 minutes this whole season.

On top of that, Rayfield said she doesn’t consider any game in the Big Ten to be easy, especially after last weekend’s showing.

“Any time you go on the road in the Big Ten, it’s a tough battle,” Rayfield said. “I think both teams are stingy defensively and very physical. We’re going to work hard to get our rhythm and create opportunities, and we’re going to have to be focused for 90 minutes.

“We have weapons that can be dangerous against both teams. But it’s going to be 90 minutes of focus to come out with road wins this season.”

Illinois will need their dangerous weapons to be more efficient this weekend. After scoring 12 goals in their first four Big Ten games, Ohio State shut out Illinois and kept them from putting shots on goal. Much of Illinois’ success has come from their ability to make the most of goal-scoring chances. Illinois has scored on almost 12 percent of their shots, a figure that includes three shutouts in the beginning of the year, before the Illini hit their scoring stride.