Reigning Big Ten champs Illini soccer begin defense of title

The Illinois soccer team graduated five standout players last season whom the Illini will miss at the beginning of this season.

They will also miss their head coach.

Illini head coach Janet Rayfield joined her All-American junior Vanessa DiBernardo when she was appointed assistant coach of the United States women’s under-20 World Cup team. DiBernardo played with the national team in March during CONCACAF qualifying in Panama, where she recorded two goals and five assists in five games. Following the qualifications, DiBernardo traveled to Japan for a pair of friendly matches in July before participating in a two-week training camp in Florida with the national team. DiBernardo was one of six midfielders and 21 total players named to the squad Aug. 2.

Rayfield will follow DiBernardo to Japan, once again joining head coach Steve Swanson’s coaching staff. The 2011 Big Ten Coach of the Year will bring her attacking mentality to the team, working with midfielders and forwards during the squad’s training.

Team USA defeated Ghana 4-0 in its first match on Aug. 20. DiBernardo started and played all 90 minutes of the game. Her corner kick in the 20th minute set the Americans up for their first tally on the board. Penn State’s Maya Hayes clinched the victory for the U.S. by scoring three goals in the second half. In its second match, the United States managed a 1-1 tie against China on Thursday. Hayes tallied the only goal during the match. The U.S. will finish group play Monday against Germany.

Meanwhile, the Illini were successful during their exhibition games without Rayfield and DiBernardo — who could be gone as long as Sept. 8, missing as many as five games ­— have continued as a strong force without their lead scorer from the 2011 season. In the 2012 Big Ten women’s soccer preseason coaches’ poll, Illinois was ranked second, and the Illini were ranked No. 19 in the country in the NSCAA preseason poll. Stanford, the 2011 national champions, claimed the top spot, followed by Duke, last season’s runner-up, and Wake Forest.

In their first exhibition game, the Illini settled for a 1-1 tie against Cincinnati. Junior Megan Pawloski tallied the only goal during the match, scoring in the 26th minute off a rebound from senior Marissa Holden’s shot. In its second and final exhibition game, Illinois came away with a 2-1 victory against Kentucky. Kristen Gierman and Pawloski tallied the two goals for the Illini, while goalkeeper Steph Panozzo protected the lead with 15 saves.

The official season began last Friday when Illinois earned a victory against Western Michigan 1-0. Junior Kassidy Brown’s penalty kick was the only goal the Illini managed to score, though they did setup multiple other opportunities throughout the match.

They continued the opening weekend against Illinois State on Sunday. Though the Redbirds were the first ones on the board, the Illini quickly retaliated with a goal of their own five minutes later. Freshman Nicole Breece tallied the lone goal for the Illini as well as her first collegiate goal. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, as Illinois recorded 26 shots, 11 on goal. The overall series between the two schools is now 6-2-2 in favor of the Illini. Illinois will continue the road series Friday against UC Santa Barbara and then travel to Los Angeles on Sunday to battle No. 5 UCLA.