Soccer boosts defense for match against No. 9 Gators

Florida goalkeeper Katie Fraine reaches for an Illinois shot on goal during the game against Florida. Adam Babcock

By Steve Contorno

Florida has never played in the state of Illinois and has yet to hit the road this season. The Illini hope to make Champaign unfriendly territory for the No. 9-ranked Gators.

“We’re expecting a big crowd,” head coach Janet Rayfield said.

Along with the fans at the stadium, also watching the game will be anyone with access to the Big Ten Network who tunes in. The game will air live on the conference’s network Friday.

“We get to show this team off not only to the people in the stands, but the people around the country,” Rayfield said. “I think there’s an excitement about that.”

The Illini (2-2) square off against the Gators after failing in their previous test against a top-10 team. The Illini fell to UCLA last Friday by a score of 4-2. Florida (3-1) will be as difficult an opponent as UCLA as the Gators return 10 starters from their SEC Championship team.

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“They’re another athletic team that has a lot of pace all over the field,” Rayfield said. “They’re going to come at us with some speedy players and we’re going to have to be organized defensively … I think that’s the step forward we need to take now.

“We’re obviously scoring a lot of goals against some good opponents and now we need the ball out of our net a little bit more often.”

Illinois should get a boost in its defensive backfield as senior defender Mary Therese McDonnell returns to the lineup. McDonnell missed most of the game against UCLA and the entire Cal State match with a head injury. McDonnell has been a staple on the back line since joining the Illini in 2004 and has played in 70 games total.

“It’s always frustrating not being able to play, but stuff happens, that’s soccer,” McDonnell said. “I’m excited to come back Friday to play Florida, and I should be fine.”

As Rayfield mentioned, the Illini have opened up the scoring after a slow preseason and season opener. Illinois has scored 11 goals in their last three games. Both senior Ella Masar and freshman Laura Knutson have tallied seven points and lead the Illini and the conference in points.

Masar was all praises for her freshman counterpart. “We need her as much as anybody,” Masar said. “She earned a starting spot and hopefully she keeps helping people out with assists and with the goals. She scores, we win and we’re all happy.”

Masar recognized the difficulty in the opponent and laid out what the Illini would have to do to defeat the Gators.

“It’s all about pressure, starting from the front to the back,” Masar said. “(Assistant coach Marcia McDermott) said they did an MLS analysis that said most goals result from when a defensive back loses the ball. So we got to keep up the pressure and I think it’ll go our way.”

Kickoff for Friday’s game is at 5 p.m.