Soccer on target for tough season ahead

Picked to finish third in the Big Ten and tabbed No. 17 in the NSCAA coaches preseason poll, head coach Janet Rayfield’s soccer team is right where it expects to be.

“I think we’re at a point in the program’s development now where we expect ourselves to be right in the top 20 and in the top 10 and getting into the NCAA Tournament. That’s sort of almost a given expectation,” Rayfield said.

What isn’t a given is whether the Illini can become one of the nation’s elite squads. Rayfield said her Illini realize how much work it will take to get to that next level, but that outcome will depend on whether Illinois can improve on what it struggled with most last season ­— offense.

“I think for us to make the difference between being a Sweet 16 team and a Final Four team, we’ve got to become a better goal-scoring team,” Rayfield said.

“We’ve historically been a great defensive team, and I think if we can add a goal-scoring mentality … then we can make that transition.”

Redshirt junior Christina Sahly scored Illinois’ lone goal in a 1-0 exhibition win over Cincinnati on Aug. 14.

After blowing a wide-open chance midway through the first period, Sahly came back and scored in the 68th minute. Sahly said learning to finish on chances will be a necessity to score more goals.

“We haven’t got a lot of weapons up top offensively, so we want to try and score as much as possible,” Sahly said. “We have many chances we’re creating, we’ve just got to finish them.”

While the outcome of the exhibition match ultimately didn’t matter, the level of play did, and Rayfield saw things she liked while taking note of areas for improvement.

“I’m pleased with some of our freshmen,” Rayfield said. “I think Niki Read showed she can play at this level, and that’s going to be fun.”

In the exhibition match, nearly every healthy member of Illinois’ roster played, and some younger players, like Read, showed a definite presence on the field.

After the match, Read was happy with her play and her contribution to the team’s offense.

“Ever since I committed, I wanted to play for the team, and it was a really good feeling,” Read said.

The freshman’s role will shift with the recovery of three injured seniors, including Chichi Nweke, who is expected to lead Illinois’ offensive attack.

Nweke and midfielder Courtney Bell were held out of the exhibition match for precautionary reasons, Rayfield said, and will likely play in the season opener against Illinois State on Friday. However, midfielder Jackie Santacaterina could be out longer.

“I think we saw what we’ve got in some of our younger players and you add that to the mix, Jackie (Santacaterina) and Court (Bell) and Chichi (Nweke), and we only get better the second week we get on the field,” Rayfield said.

With the three seniors in the lineup, the Illini’s offensive potential will need to be fully realized as they take on a brutal schedule, featuring 10 teams that appeared in last season’s NCAA Tournament.