Soccer team gets ready for Bruins



By Steve Contorno

Following an opening weekend of mixed results, the Illinois soccer team will try to climb back into the top 25 with a pair of games this weekend. And it has just one opponent – No. 7 UCLA – to prove it belongs back with soccer elite.

Defeating UCLA (0-1) won’t be easy. The Bruins finished in the final four of last year’s Women’s College Cup and the Illini will have to travel to Los Angeles to play them in their own challenge: the UCLA Women’s Cup, which begins Friday.

“(UCLA) will have similar athleticism to Missouri,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “You’re going to see a team full of good athletes and a well-organized team. I have a lot of respect for (UCLA head coach) Jill Ellis and her ability to organize a group.”

Facing a team that’s similar to Missouri may pose a problem for Illinois. The Tigers torched the Illini for five goals last Friday, but junior goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens said the team spent the week working out the kinks in the defense.

“We’ve been working on a lot of stuff defensively and watching film from this past weekend trying to figure things out and fix things so that what (UCLA) does throw at us, we can handle,” Carstens said.

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UCLA and Illinois have more in common than they might think. Ellis, who has been with UCLA since 1999, was the head coach for the Illinois soccer team when the program began in 1997. And like the Illini, the Bruins are coming off an opening weekend that didn’t end the way they had hoped. After having a 4-0 lead over Houston washed away by a rain cancellation, UCLA also played a Big 12 opponent – then No. 7 Texas – to begin the season. And just like the Illini, the Bruins fell in their match against a Big 12 team, losing to the Longhorns 2-1.

“We thought we had a close game with Texas last year that we ended up losing in overtime, so I think our team has a sense that this is a game we can compete in,” Rayfield said. “We’ll have to play well, we’ll have to play fast and we’ll have to play organized.”

The Illini (1-1) will also need to continue the goal-scoring clinic they put on for Xavier last Sunday. Illinois tallied five goals and dished out four assists to clinch the 5-0 win over the Lady Musketeers. But Friday’s loss still lingered over the Illini, and the team had plenty to improve on this week in practice to prepare for UCLA.

“The two things coming out of this weekend that we knew we needed to work on were our activity rate in the back and our speed of play in the midfield,” Rayfield said. “The focus (during Tuesday’s practice) was to get those things consistent and faster because against a team like UCLA, you know they have the athletic ability and technical ability to play fast.”

A key component for the Illini will be Ella Masar and how long she can remain in the game playing with a bone bruise in her left ankle. Masar, who picked up Big Ten Co-Player of the Week on Monday, missed some practice this week as a precaution. Last week, Masar pulled herself out after scoring a goal before the end of the first half.

“I think Ella was really reluctant not to practice (on Tuesday),” Rayfield said. “She feels good running on it. The concern is if she gets hit again on that bone bruise, the longer it takes to heal. … I feel good about both of them (Masar and midfielder Kristi Weeks) being ready to play this weekend.”

Illinois’ match with UCLA begins Friday at 7 p.m. The Illini will then play Cal-State Northridge at 1 p.m. on Sunday.