Illini soccer team to face one of toughest schedules in program’s history

The Illinois soccer team will not be at a disadvantage in the strength of schedule category when it comes time to seed teams for the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

A year after sneaking into the postseason in part because of a solid non-conference schedule, the Illini have upped the ante, assembling one of the toughest out-of-conference slates in the program’s history.

Seven of the nine teams Illinois faces before the start of Big Ten play made postseason appearances last year, with one making the NCAA quarterfinals and another the NCAA semifinals.

Highlighting the Illini’s schedule are the UCLA Bruins, a squad that finished 22-1-2 last season while advancing to the College Cup – NCAA soccer’s equivalent to the Final Four – where they lost 1-0 to eventual national champion North Carolina.

The Bruins will visit Champaign to face Illinois on Sept. 4 and Florida on Sept. 6 in the Illini Challenge Cup presented by Gameday Spirit, a four-team, four-match, two-day event.

The Illini got the Bruins on the schedule in part because UCLA head coach Jillian Ellis was the head coach at Illinois for two seasons, from 1997-98.

Ellis said it is important for her team to play “not just quality teams, but also teams out of different regions.” She said she had been in contact with the Illinois coaches, and when a spot opened in the Illini Cup and the Bruins were invited, she jumped at the chance for her squad to play a couple top-tier squads from two other major conferences.

Of course, seeing some old friends in a homecoming of sorts is a draw for Ellis as well.

“Hopefully I can grab a bite to eat with (old friends),” Ellis said. “Whenever I try to schedule trips, I typically try and go somewhere where I know the people because friendship is such a big part of soccer.”

Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield will use the UCLA game as a measuring stick for her team, as she knows the Illini must play the nation’s top teams for the program to reach the next level.

“We’re at a point in the program’s development where we’ve kind of put ourselves out there against the best,” Rayfield said.

“We think we’re one of the best (programs), and therefore we’ve put a schedule together that’s going to test us against the best,” he added.

There will be many other challenges for the Orange and Blue as well.

On Aug. 28 and 30, the Illini will play a pair of matches in Denver, Colo., against 2008 postseason qualifiers Colorado and Denver, which went 19-3-2 in 2008. Two weeks later, the Illini head west again to play the Portland Pilots, who went 20-2 en route to the national quarterfinals last season.

“We’ve tried to get some opponents that look different and test us in ways a little bit different than our conference schedule,” Rayfield said. “We’ve got a very wide variety of opponents, and that’s going to help prepare us for things we may see down the road.”

Illinois will play 19 regular season matches in all, with every Big Ten school on the schedule.

Important Big Ten games include the conference opener against defending co-champion Minnesota on Sept. 27 and a trip to Happy Valley on Oct. 25 to play Penn State, which has won at least a share of the Big Ten title in each of the last 11 years.

One team that is not on the Illini’s schedule is Missouri.

The teams have played a regular season match each of the last three years, and their rivalry intensified last season when the Illini defeated the Tigers in penalty kicks in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Columbia, Miss.

But the pair of wins by Illinois last year has nothing to do with the teams not facing each other in 2009, as Rayfield said Missouri will likely be back on the schedule in the future.

“Really, a lot of it is about what you can fit in your schedule,” Rayfield said. “You get some home-and-away situations and then it’s not a year where we both had a date that we could work out. I think they’ll continue to be an opponent, I think they’re on our schedule already for either 2010 or ’11. It’s an opponent we’ll see again, too good of a school too close to not keep that rivalry going.”