Illinois soccer back home for last stretch of Big Ten play

Illinois’ Janelle Flaws (3) attempts the bring the ball under control inside the 18-yard box during the game against Minnesota at Illiniois Track and Soccer Stadium, on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. The Illini lost 2-1 in overtime.

By Joey Figueroa

During a tough stretch in which it has managed just one point in its last five matches, the Illinois soccer team will look to get itself back on track during an extended stay at home.

Illinois (9-6-1, 4-5-1 Big Ten) will welcome Michigan State (9-6-1, 3-5-1) to the Illinois Soccer Stadium on Friday night for what should be a hard-fought Big Ten matchup in front of a rowdy Homecoming crowd.

Illinois and Michigan State are separated by just one point in the Big Ten standings and both have plenty to play for heading into the final stretch of the regular season. The Illini hope playing at home will give them the edge they need.

“I think it’s definitely an advantage for us,” junior midfielder Reagan Robishaw said. “There’s nothing like playing under the lights here. We have a great stadium and a great fan base. So I think it’s something that we have to really use.”

The Spartans are fresh off of their own homestand, during which they defeated Ohio State 2-1 before falling to No. 4 Penn State in another close 2-1 match. Michigan State has been stingy on defense all season, averaging less than one goal allowed per game, and its goalkeeper Courtney Clem leads the Big Ten in saves by a wide margin, with 93 on the year.

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The tough defense will be a challenge for the Illini, who haven’t scored more than one goal in their last five games.

“I think we just have to execute,” senior forward Jannelle Flaws said. “Against Rutgers I thought we had a really great game tactically. I think if we can just execute like we did and execute in the final third, I think we should be good.”

Following Friday’s bout with Michigan State, Illinois will face Michigan (11-4-1, 7-2-1) on Sunday afternoon.

The Illini stole an overtime win at Michigan in last year’s final match of the 2013 regular season, so the high-scoring Wolverines will look to return the favor at Illinois Soccer Stadium. The Big Ten’s third-best offensive team is also fresh off a homestand in which it lost 1-0 to Penn State and tied with Ohio State.

It has been a roller-coaster season for the Illini, and with some sore players getting rest and three straight matches at home, they are looking to gain some momentum heading into the postseason.

Returning key players like junior defender Amy Feher, who hasn’t played during this recent five-game skid, and freshman forward Kara Marbury will provide the depth Illinois needs to garner that momentum.

“I think all of them are going to do their best to be able to compete on Friday,” said head coach Janet Rayfield. “And being at home helps that. There’s nothing better than sleeping in your own bed, eating food you know and having the training room 24/7. And they’ll be using all of those things to get themselves ready to play.”

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