SoccerFest continues to bring success for Illini

Sunday marked Illinois’ sixth SoccerFest, at which fans were treated to free food, raffle prizes and inflatable games. The end of the festivities treated more than 1,000 fans to one more thing, a “1-0 Illinois victory”: over the Wisconsin Badgers.

“I think it wasn’t one of our largest crowds, but on a windy day on a Sunday afternoon … to have over a thousand people come in here again on Sunday,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “Again, the energy that the crowd brings, especially on a Sunday, we’ve played with more energy for a Big Ten Sunday than we have all season long, and I think part of that has to do with the crowd.”

The Illini added another victory on “SoccerFest”: ), something they have done every year but one. The Orange and Blue are now 5-0-1 at the event, including a 2-1 victory over Indiana last season. Having yet to suffer a loss on SoccerFest, the overwhelming success can be largely attributed to the fans, Rayfield said.

“I think it just adds energy,” Rayfield said. “SoccerFest does come on a Sunday a lot, and Sunday games in the Big Ten especially are so much about energy, because you have played a tough game on Friday night. It’s a pretty quick turnaround, and so energy is a big part of those Sunday games.”

The last five SoccerFest matches are responsible for the five largest home crowds in the program’s history, the highest being the inaugural Soccerfest, which had an attendance of 2,667.

“When you have crowds of 1,000, 2,000 … that’s energy and that’s just a vital commodity on a Sunday in the Big Ten, and I think SoccerFest adds to that and is an important reason why we’ve been successful on those Sundays.”

*Match at Northwestern presents new element for Illini*

The Illini will look to continue their five-game winning streak Thursday night in Evanston, Ill., as they face Northwestern.

The Wildcats play on an artificial grass surface, unlike Illinois. The Illini will practice a bit differently this week in hopes of improving offensive chances and simulating some of the playing conditions.

“You know it’s a different surface, so we’ll get some time on the turf surface,” Rayfield said. “We’ll focus a lot on getting the ball, that’s bouncing it in the air and getting it down in play, and I think if we can do that on Thursday night it will certainly help us create some chances.”

The Wildcats (2-12-1, 1-6-1) have struggled this season and have found themselves alone at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Rayfield is quick to point out that a victory Thursday will not come easy for the Illini.

“Going in there, it’s a dangerous team; they’re much better than their record shows, and we’re going to have to show up to play on Thursday,” Rayfield said. “And to play probably in a bit of a windy conditions on AstroTurf. We’re going to have to deal with that adversity and go in there and fight hard, because it will be another hard-fought battle I’m sure.”

With state bragging rights on the line, Rayfield is excited for Thursday’s match.

“There are probably players on both teams that have played against each other growing up,” Rayfield said. “There will be a lot of fans I think from our Chicago contingent, a lot of alumni that are still up in the Chicago area, and that always makes for a really fun competition.”

*Illini practicing with shorter turnaround*

Entering the final stretch of the Big Ten season, sophomore forward Megan Pawloski is hoping to stay fresh heading into the game against the Wildcats.

“Right now (our focus is) to keep our bodies rested,” Pawloski said. “Because we play on Thursday instead of Friday, it’s a little shorter rest time.”

The Illini (11-4-1, 5-2-1 Big Ten) have had four straight shutouts, and the defense has anchored the team, as Illinois’ offense has struggled recently. The offense, which has scored five goals four times this season, has scored just four goals in the last four games.

“We’re getting a lot of chances, and we saw two really good defensive teams that were limiting them,” Pawloski said. “But we were still able to get them, so now it’s a matter of us putting them away and keep winning.”