Illinois soccer to begin Big Ten play with Iowa, Nebraska

By Joey Figueroa

Now riding a five-game winning streak, during which it has allowed just two goals, Illinois (5-1-0) will begin its Big Ten schedule this weekend with road games against Iowa (5-1-0) and Nebraska (4-2-0).

Conference play will begin Thursday night in Iowa City, as the Illini will try to continue to give the Hawkeyes the same trouble they have in recent years. Illinois is 9-1-1 in matches against Iowa since 2003, including two straight 2-1 victories in each of the past two seasons.

Iowa has held an advantage at home in past seasons and own a 5-3-1 record against Illinois at the Iowa Soccer Complex.

“They’re a great team, the past few times have been a good games,” junior forward Nicole Breece said. “For a season opener for Big Ten, it’ll be exciting and it’s going to be tough as usual. We’ve just got to come out and play the way we want to play and focus on us.”

The Illini defense has been smothering during the five-game winning streak, as it outshot opponents 80-35. The Hawkeyes will counter the Illini’s defensive prowess with senior forward Cloe Lacasse, who sits atop the Big Ten with seven goals and 17 points, and leads an offense that has outshot its opponents 106-52 in six games this season.

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    “They may have a new coach, but they’ve got a culture there that went to the NCAA tournament and expects to get back,” head coach Janet Rayfield said of Iowa. “It’s a senior class that had a taste of (the NCAA tournament) that certainly wants it back. So it’s certainly going to be a tough road opener for us in the first game of the season.”

    Once the match concludes, Illinois will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, for another road conference test against Nebraska.

    Like the Illini, the Huskers have received votes in the NSCAA Coach’s Poll this season and have outscored their opponents 14-6 thus far. They’re coming off a 4-0 victory over North Dakota after a narrow 2-1 overtime defeat at the hands of No. 20 Oklahoma.

    Nebraska is led by sophomore forward Jaycie Johnson, who is third in the Big Ten with six goals in as many games, and already has two multiple-goal games.

    Heading into conference play, there are eight different Big Ten teams with just one loss so far this season. Rayfield sees no clear favorite in the conference and thinks it could be a toss-up.

    “I think any team in the Big Ten could win on any given day, and you’ve got to do that for 13 games now and see who’s got the most points at the end,” Rayfield said. “And that means every point’s going to matter, every game’s going matter, every second of every game matters, and that’s what makes Big Ten soccer so exciting. I don’t think you can take any opponent for granted, and who’s going to end up in the top eight is anybody’s guess.”

    Despite the heightened conference competition, the Illini have high hopes.

    “I think that this is the defense that we thought we could have and I think we can have better,” sophomore defender Hope D’Addario said. “We’re never going to stop trying to better as a defensive line and as a defensive unit with all eleven players on the field. It’s definitely an improvement since the first 90 minutes (against Notre Dame), and I think we’re really happy about that, but we’re not going stop trying to get better.”

    Joey can be reached at [email protected] and @joeyfigueroa3.