Soccer puts more trust into reduced defense line

When this season began, there was something different about the Illinois soccer team.

A formational shift has pulled the balance toward the midfield and away from the defensive back line. Though the offense is now more of a focal point for the Illini, the importance of the three remaining defenders is now magnified.

Senior Jenna Carosio, sophomore Kassidy Brown and sophomore Christina Farrell began the season in these crucial roles. Farrell is currently out with injury, allowing freshman Stephanie Pouse and senior Caitlin Dombart the opportunity to rotate in the currently vacated position.

With just a few formation-assigned defenders, the midfielders have heightened their defensive awareness.

“With the system we are playing and the style we are playing, all 11 players have to think about defending when the other team has the ball, and all 11 players have to think about attacking when we have the ball,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “I think the strength of the style we play is that we have players that play on both sides of the ball, especially in our midfield. There, pressure on the ball is key in order for Jenna, Kassidy and Stephanie, or whoever else is playing on that back line, to do their job.”

One of the pieces Rayfield moved in the formation change is senior Julie Ewing, who switched positions from the defensive line to midfielder. Despite her newfound offensive mindset, she is familiar with the pressure and challenges that come with the defensive position.

“I think our three backs have been doing an awesome job,” Ewing said. “Definitely anyone that has been back there has done great work in terms of it more so about positioning and knowing where to be when. Also, they have worked their butts off back there to keep balls out of the back of the net or keep us in games.”

Brown missed a significant portion of conference play last season with an ACL tear. Since returning to the field this season, she’s noticed a difference between players’ physicality in and out of the Big Ten. As the size and speed of players change, Brown quickly has a method that she turns to in order to defend.

“A lot of the teams that we have played so far, I have noticed that the girls are a lot bigger and stronger at holding me off,” Brown said. “I find myself with bigger girls trying to put more pressure on themselves so they can’t turn because they are slower to turn, and quicker girls I definitely ease on the defensive side where I will step back a little more in case they turn quickly.”

Defensive players don’t receive many awards or recognition during the game, but they’ve become an even more key component of the team.

“I think it is one of those positions that have so many responsibilities and not a lot of recognition,” Rayfield said. “I think players that play in the back are ones who have to be appreciative of their own contribution as opposed to looking to outsiders to appreciate that contribution. I think, within the team, you get that. Everyone on the team knows the role from goalkeeper to backline to the defensive mids.

“From an outside perspective, it’s not the people that you see getting the glory or making the team of the week that often because their contributions are so less tangible and not necessarily statistically categorized. I think the challenge of a defender is the psychological confidence that you have to have that’s not dependent on anybody else’s opinion or on accolades you might achieve.”