Illini soccer’s defensive formation adjustment shows overall benefit

The Illinois soccer team started off this season making a big sacrifice.

Along with starting the season without head coach Janet Rayfield and junior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, the Illini also switched their defensive mentality after defender Jenna Carosio graduated.

With the loss of Carosio, who led the three-back defensive formation, interim head coach Jeff Freeman thought it was in Illinois’ best interest to add another person to the lineup.

“We decided to make a really big change defensively,” Freeman said. “Last year, we played the three-back partly because of Jenna’s talent. We’ve moved to a four-back this year, and we’ve had to put a couple of new players back there.”

Senior Shayla Mutz and freshman “Tailor Smith”:, who normally sit in the midfielder position, were the two additions to the four-back formation. This allowed the Illini to have two players in the wing positions along the sidelines, making them more available to aid the attack.

Junior Kassidy Brown and senior Mutz have already proved to be a help to the offense, tallying one goal a piece this season.

“One of the things about a four-back is that it really is an attacking formation,” Freeman said. “Proceeding to move into a four-back was really based on the fact that Shayla Mutz and Kassidy Brown would be on the outside of that system and have the freedom to get forward in the attack.”

Though this formation may be unfamiliar to some on the team, the Illini played the four-back during the 2010 season. They only switched to a three-back last season due to the strength of the defensive players on the roster.

Brown said the transition hasn’t been hard for her personally because she played the four-back formation before, but the team is still adjusting.

“It wasn’t as difficult as you would think,” Brown said. “We played in a four-back my freshman year … I had a little taste of it, but there are still some obvious points that all of us need to work on.”

When the whistle is blown, Illinois is set up in the four-back formation, but with the defenders playing up to support the attack, it is hard for opposing teams to tell what formation they are playing.

Junior Megan Pawloski said this allows the team to have a variety of formation changes throughout the game.

“I think it’s really good when we are able to change in the middle of the game because it keeps teams guessing,” Pawloski said. “It obviously gives us more people going forward and more chances to score. The other team can’t think that we are always doing the same thing because we are so easily able to mix things up.”

The new formation has benefitted the Illini defensively this year, allowing only six goals and tallying two shutouts, which came at the beginning of the year. However, on the opposite side of things, it has hindered Illinois’ attacking front, allowing it only six goals scored in seven games.

Freeman hopes that the team will have more attacking play in the future.

“Last year, we had seven players that were already in front of our backline. This year we have six,” Freeman said. “It makes it a little bit more difficult to get the ball forward and generate some attack, which has been the problem on our goal scoring side of things. We’ve got to a better job in terms of keeping possession and giving ourselves some time to get Shayla and Kassidy forward, which will help us on the offensive end as well.”

And returning from Japan this week is DiBernardo, who was playing with the U.S. under-20 Women’s National Team. The U.S. defeated Germany 1-0 in the final match to claim the title. With her return as a key component in the midfield, the Illini should a get a boost to start their Big Ten season.

“We missed her greatly,” Brown said. “You can just tell that she has a much more mature way of playing now, and I think she will impact us greatly with her coming back and adding to our team what she has learned playing at such a high level.”

_Gina can be reached at [email protected] and @muelle30._