Illinois soccer season recap: Illini struggle in Big Ten play despite strong start to nonconference action

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Sydney Laput

Midfielder Hope Breslin runs onto the field during the game against Wisconsin on Oct. 8. Breslin was selected by Angel City FC in the third round of the NWSL Draft.

By Angelle Cortes, Assistant Sports Editor

It was an unsuccessful season for Illinois soccer in the 2021 campaign to say the least. Overall, the Illini went 5-11-1, finished 1-8-1 in the Big Ten and ended the season 13th in the conference table. 

The Illini just narrowly escaped last in conference on the final day of regular season play. Illinois had already played its last game of the season in a rescheduled game against Rutgers. Maryland, which was just one point below Illinois, needed at least a draw or a win to go above, and against Michigan, it nearly looked like it was almost pulled off. 

Maryland had the lead, but Michigan struck back, leading to overtime and the Wolverines finished it off within 30 seconds. 

So, let’s get into breaking down the season for Illinois soccer. 

The Good 

Hope Breslin’s scoring was back

Her senior season only saw her rack an assist, but she turned it around in her extra eligibility year. The season opener against Mizzou saw her get a goal, and she netted a hat trick against Illinois State. Then, at the big game against North Carolina, she scored the team’s first goal in the opening minutes. Although Illinois ended up losing the game, 5-1, it was an insane goal to open up the new stadium against the then No. 2 team in the country.

Breslin ended as the top goalscorer of the team with seven goals. I wish we could have seen more goals from her, but I’ll take the seven rather than see another season with zero.

The lineup

This season, the Illini lined up in a 4-3-3 catering to the dynamic of the players up top of Breslin, Makena Silber, Kendra Pasquale and eventually Maeve Jones. The change made sense to put Breslin at the center considering she was one of the players with the better scoring ability and played the same position in summer league play with the Gotham Reserves.

I personally think the change was made to put their three top goalscorers in front of goal, and at first, it worked. Within the first two games, the Illini had already scored nine goals and a couple games later against Bowling Green scored five goals.  

The Bad

Midfield losing the ball 

Giving away the ball right at the center of the pitch is possibly one of the worst things that could happen. Unfortunately for Illinois, this was a hole discovered early into the season and something that couldn’t get fixed. I noticed it first against North Carolina, but it was understandable considering the pace of the Tar Heels. However, when the games against two Big East teams came up, that’s when it was a clear problem.

The main culprit of getting the ball stolen off her feet was Eileen Murphy. She struggled to give the ball away under intense pressure (which Butler and Xavier did very well at), but after those two games, she regrouped herself and converted into a center back and did better in that position. 

The Ugly

Goalkeeping

As a keeper unit, both Julia Cili and Naomi Jackson conceded a total of 35 goals overall and 23 in conference play, marking Illinois as the Big Ten team that conceded the most goals. I asked Rayfield how the season would have looked if Sami Sample would have stayed for a fifth year, and her answer was that it’s a complete mystery. She then went on to say if Sample did stay for a fifth year, the next season would lack experience behind the net, considering that Jackson and Cili would not have gotten as many minutes as they did this season. 

Don’t get me wrong: Jackson and Cili did have some great moments in the net, but there definitely needs to be consistency from both of them. This season for them was a learning process, and hopefully, they reflect on their performances and use the offseason and spring season to improve and bounce back. 

Finishing

It’s the second year for me covering this team, and once again, Illinois struggled to finish their chances. Like I mentioned earlier, the lineup changed to put their best goalscorers up top. It worked at first, but it didn’t continue throughout the whole season. Illinois just couldn’t finish its chances, which hurt the team a lot, and caused a lot of one-goal losses. 

What to look ahead for 

The attack

Of the six attackers, only Pasquale, Sydney Stephens and Jones are returning, meaning the current forwards and incoming freshmen have big shoes to fill as they’ll have to step into Breslin, Silber and Maggie Hillman’s shoes.

I do have an inkling of suspicion that Silber will be coming back for a fifth year. That’s what I think, but then again, I don’t really know how the NCAA eligibility extension works. 

From the underclassmen, we did see glimpses of Abby Lynch, Julia Eichenbaum, Zoey Kollhoff and Makala Woods. Regardless, I do see Woods settling in at left forward and Jones at right forward, but the center forward position is up in the air if the 4-3-3 formation stays.

Midfield-wise, I would think Pasquale would stay as one of the attacking midfielders considering her work rate. So, it would be more beneficial for her to be able to run back and defend and also bring the ball up from midfield, fire a shot or find the forwards in front of her. 

Stephens is a wild-card player because I don’t think we ever really saw her settle into a specific role within the team. I saw her as a hustler when times were tough, and at one point, she was the queen of assists. For the rising sophomore, I would love to see her dribbling game and shooting game improve. She has a lot of potential, and it would be great to see her get on the score sheet more often. 

Spring season 

After a harsh campaign, Rayfield and the team are looking ahead to spring and putting the past in the past. I’m interested in seeing some goalkeeper improvement, stand out players and how the team will mesh without Hillman and Breslin. We’ll definitely see glimpses of nearly everyone who’s fit to play and maybe some will show off a promising performance they’ve been keeping in their back pocket.

What Illinois needs

A right back 

I cannot stress this enough, but the Illini need a true right back. In my opinion, Aleah Treiterer does not make the cut. She’s still a great defender, but right back isn’t her calling. If Rayfield could somehow clone Cathro and make her right-footed, I would be fine with it. Cathro, although listed as a defender, has a lot of offensive drive in her, which is probably one of my favorite things about her. I cannot stress this enough, but back in the spring, the movement between her and Pasquale down the left side wasn’t praised enough. 

If you look back at the match against Maryland and pay close attention to Cathro, she was – without a doubt – one of the top players of the match and probably covered a lot, if not the most, amount of ground that day. She was running up down that left side and sending cross after cross in.

Back to my point, if Illinois had a right back just like Cathro, flank play would be a big part of its game.  

A natural goalscorer

Illinois needs goals, desperately. Nearly every game, the Illini had every piece of the scoring puzzle except finishing. When it came to conference play, the Illini could only muster one goal in nearly every game and only had two matches where two goals were scored. My prediction on who could be the best goalscorer is Maeve Jones in just a year or two, with Lynch just close behind. 

Consistency

There were times during the season where Jackson and Cili were on their game, but the six in the attack were not, and in other games, it was vice versa. If Illinois can have consistency in the defense and offense in nearly every game, then I think the Illini can challenge for a top spot in the Big Ten rather than scramble to not finish last.   

Memorable moments 

Breslin’s goal against North Carolina

What an opening to Demirjian Park, right? She was in the right place at the right time and had really good awareness. From 25 to 30 yards out, she placed it perfectly where the ball tucked right under the bar. 

Breslin’s almost golden goal against Wisconsin

If only she had just a couple more seconds, Illinois would have won the game and gotten another three points in a row. But alas, it was called back because the ball didn’t cross the line in time. I gotta say, though, what a moment when Breslin initially scored and the whole team ran on the field. Eileen Murphy just fell on the ground, probably exhausted, but glad that the game was over and no longer needed to defend Wisconsin. Also, shoutout to Galo for finding the perfect pass for Breslin. 

Prell seeing minutes

For those who don’t know, Ashley Prell missed her senior season of high school due to an ACL tear. Fast forward to sophomore year in the fall, she sprained her ACL once again, eliminating her from the eventual spring season. She didn’t see any minutes at all this season until the last game against Rutgers and played 11 minutes. Regardless if it’s against a ranked team or an exhibition, coming back to the field after an ACL tear is something worth celebrating, so hats off to you, Prell.

What I am interested in seeing for the future

Eileen Murphy’s position 

Murphy started off as the No. 6 in the defensive midfield position and was specifically recruited to be that player. However after a shaky performance at the beginning of the season, we saw her move down in the center back position. She then turned into the last woman/sweeper player to pick the ball off before opponents had the chance to take a shot. I’m curious if Murphy will move back into midfield or if Rayfield will figure out a way to manage her four center backs into the lineup. 

Who’s going to step up?

It was a tough season for the Illini, but come next fall, it’ll be a clean slate. Illinois will be losing key players in its attack, so Woods, Lynch, Jones, Kennedy Berschel, Stephens, Pasquale and others are going to have to step up to fill those gaps. If they turn things around like Michigan State did this season, going from 13th to 4th in the Big Ten or even improving to sixth, I’d be content with that. But in order to get back up in the middle of the table, Illinois needs to show that it has a consistent keeper and a consistent scoring attack. 

 

@AngelleCortes

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