Finding Big Ten success remains looming question for Illinois soccer in 2022

Defensive+Aleah+Treiterer+attempts+to+keep+the+ball+away+from+Rutgers+on+Oct.+23.+Despite+the+disappointing+performance+last+season+for+the+Illini%2C+this+season+shines+hope+for+a+better+turn+out+with+the+teams+new+faces+and++performance+during+the+recent+August+exhibition+matches.+

James Hoeck

Defensive Aleah Treiterer attempts to keep the ball away from Rutgers on Oct. 23. Despite the disappointing performance last season for the Illini, this season shines hope for a better turn out with the team’s new faces and performance during the recent August exhibition matches.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

The importance of winning conference matches cannot be understated. While finding Big Ten wins hasn’t been easy for Illinois soccer in recent times, there is hope to be had for the incoming squad in 2022. With new faces joining the program and veteran stars suiting up for another year, the Illini have plenty of reasons to hope for a better year following a difficult season prior.

When reminiscing on the 2021 season, there’s no beating around the bush. Illinois struggled, earning a 5-11-1 overall record and a measly 1-8-1 conference record. A single Big Ten victory over last-place Maryland saw Illinois finish 13th, or second-to-last in the standings. However, as the team prepares to kick off the 2022 season next week, the signs appear to be promising.

The Illini have looked strong in the aftermath of the disappointing previous year. Illinois was dominant in its five 2022 spring exhibition matches and claimed notable victories. Among these included a 3-1 win over Big Ten rivals Indiana and a 3-0 win over last season’s Division II National Champions Grand Valley State.

More recently, the Illini have impressed in two August exhibition matches. Illinois trounced Eastern Illinois 5-0 last Saturday and managed to defeat No. 4 Virginia 2-1 last Wednesday. Despite being preseason friendlies, the Illini’s triumphs should not be overlooked, particularly the victory over the ranked Cavaliers. Needless to say, Illinois managing to beat a top-5 team in the country is huge, not only for the team’s confidence but also for sending a message to conference opposition.

The major test for this season will be the Big Ten matches. While the Illini are coming into the official season hot off of an unbeaten preseason, it will be a question of consistency that decides the level of success this fall. Last year, Illinois managed to claim big non-conference wins early on, but as the season progressed the victories began to dwindle. The second half of the season saw the Illini fall week after week to Big Ten opponents, a collapse that they’ll need to avoid in 2022.

Additionally, the manner in which Illinois lost Big Ten matches brings up the question of whether or not the team had the legs to stay consistent from start to finish. Leads that were blown, last second winners that were conceded and comebacks that came up short thwarted the Illini during conference play in 2021. Winnable games tended to result in narrow, painful losses. This season Illinois needs to be able to finish those matches and beat the Iowa’s, the Northwestern’s and the Indiana’s in order to improve in the Big Ten standings. Simply put, the Illini need to be able to do what they could not last year, which is find the difficult victories when it matters most.

Illinois have appeared to take steps in the right direction to prevent fitness level issues late in the season. In addition to having multiple players returning, head coach Janet Rayfield has brought in eight fresh faces to strengthen the team in all areas of the pitch. The Illini have created further depth in the attack, midfield, defense and goalkeeper positions, which will likely play an important role when the intensity of the season begins to take its toll on the squad.

Once again, the looming question for Illinois this year is what its success in the Big Ten will look like. Improving on the one-win conference season prior should be expected, but whether or not it is fitting to call the Illini a sleeping giant in the Big Ten remains to be seen. Recent results appear to point in that direction and the team certainly has the talent and potential to go far this season, but only time will tell.

There is certainly room for optimism amongst the Illini fan base as all eyes look ahead to the season opener versus Illinois State next Thursday.

 

@james_kim15

[email protected]