Speed, depth key to Illini’s tourney win

By Stuart Lieberman

Head coach Janet Rayfield’s Illini have made it through the first two weekends of their season undefeated due to two simple aspects of soccer – speed and depth.

Junior forward Chichi Nweke has led the Illini to a 3-0 start with her quickness at the top of the field and in the box.


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Illini win tournament

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Women beat Iowa State

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“I love Chichi’s speed on the field,” senior midfielder Marti Desjarlais said. “You can play balls pretty much anywhere and you can count on her getting there.”

Nweke leads Illinois with two goals on the season, including the goal that set the team apart from Iowa State in its 3-1 victory on Friday in the first round of the Illini Challenge Cup.

“I don’t really think about it,” Nweke said about handling the ball at such a fast pace. “I just kind of go and I hope I come out with the ball, and if I don’t I try and get it back.”

Rayfield said Nweke helps the team create chances on offense and put away games earlier – something former Illini forward Ella Masar was known for during her years with the team.

“Everybody’s said all along, ‘What are you going to do without Ella?'” Rayfield said. “The thing about Chichi is she’s fast with the ball. Ella was fast without the ball. Chichi is fast with and without the ball, and that makes her dangerous.”

Nweke’s speed on the field is not just an advantage for her, though, as it tends to rub off on the entire team.

“It opens things up for other people,” Rayfield said about Nweke’s speed. “We’ll continue to rely on her as a threat to get behind people. We’ve got a lot of people that can score goals because Chichi’s making people respect her pace.”

When it comes to Nweke’s teammates, there’s an entire bench of talented players ready to go.

“To be honest I think anybody on our bench can step in at any time,” Rayfield said. “We talk about the gap on our team from top to bottom, and it’s really small right now. The difference really is experience and mentality.”

Fresh feet can come off the bench at anytime for the Illini and pick up right where the outgoing starter left off. Senior Charlotte Cooke and sophomore Laura Knutson testified to the depth of the Illinois bench in the first half of Friday’s win.

After the Illinois starters came out slow in the beginning of the game, Cooke and Knutson entered the game towards the end of the first half and gave the team a much-needed boost. Cooke scored the game’s first goal on an assist from Knutson, providing what the team calls a “game-changing moment.”

“One of our goals is to get points off the bench because we do feel like our front-running core is pretty deep,” Rayfield said. “Laura Knutson, Charlotte Cooke coming off the bench, Marissa Mykines coming off the bench, those guys can give us a real spark.”

And with senior defender Emily Zurrer returning from Beijing, the team’s roster is now complete. In addition to Zurrer’s experience, Rayfield will continue to look towards Nweke’s leadership at the top of the field and the positive play from the bench to make her team’s undefeated season last as long as possible.