Soccer looks for crucial wins



By Cody Westerlund

The No. 16 Illinois soccer team hopes to kick the Big Ten race into overdrive this weekend when it hits the road to face a pair of conference opponents.

Winners of five of their last six games, the Illini (9-4) are planning to attack early and often this weekend when they travel to Iowa and Minnesota. To capture the crucial road wins, the team must play aggressive soccer for the entire game – something they do so well at home.

“The key thing for us now is to play 90 minutes on the road,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “Part of that is coming out from the get-go and really going after teams. We’ll be attacking-minded for 90 minutes.”

Currently, Illinois sits in a tie for second place in the Big Ten with nine points, one point behind leader Purdue. Oftentimes, it is these type of road games against middle of the pack opponents that can make the difference between a conference title and the agony of falling just short, so the Illini can ill afford a letdown.

The match with Iowa very well could be a game of contrasting styles. As much as Illinois wants to play quickly, Iowa has tried to slow the game down in previous years, and Rayfield said she would not be surprised to see Iowa have a low restraining line to keep the Illini attack at bay.

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If that is the case, last weekend’s win against a passive Michigan defense will help Illinois. The Orange and Blue were frustrated at times by the Wolverine defense that played back, and it was not until late in the game when the Illini scored their only goal. If Iowa does the same thing, junior forward Chichi Nweke said the team must be patient while still playing quickly.

“If they’re packing it in, we just have to play around them until opportunities open up and make sure when we do get opportunities, we finish them,” said Nweke, who leads the team with five goals, three of which have been game-winners.

Iowa (7-5-1) and Minnesota (12-1) enter this weekend on positive notes, having each won its last two games. The Golden Gophers defense has been particularly dominant this year in shutting out their opponent ten times and allowing just four total goals on the season.

“We’ve got to look to get behind,” Rayfield said. “They really put a lot of pressure in the midfield. Our midfield needs to be good in terms of keeping the ball and playing quickly. The quicker we play, the harder we are to defend.”

Rayfield emphasized the team must continue playing with the “aggressive mentality” they have at home. To do that, the team must be crisp and quick with pressure in its face and not become stagnant or disorganized under pressure.

Like Illinois, the Golden Gophers like to play an up-tempo style, which plays into the Illini’s hands if they can execute. Rayfield said she expects Minnesota to trap in the midfield. If it does, space may open for the Illinois defenders to create some chances. Senior Emily Zurrer has been dangerous from the back, scoring three goals this the year.

The Illini are 2-4 on the road this season and have been shut out in every one of those losses. What it may come down to in the end for Illinois, though, is simply keeping its focus.

“It’s maintaining a 90-minute focus,” junior defender Brittany Garrett said. “It’s us focusing on the little things we need to do.”