Soccer among Big Ten leaders in offensive categories

Despite defensive inconsistency, the Illinois soccer team has been able to muster a 5-2-1 record because of its impressive offensive performances this season.

The Illini have scored 28 goals on 170 shots — good for first and second in the Big Ten, respectively — in eight matches. That accounts for an average of 3.5 goals per match, a very high rate for any soccer team. They are also second in assists with 25 and first in points with 81 (goals account for two points each and an assist is one point).

Illinois is also represented in the top 10 of individual offensive statistics by junior forward Jannelle Flaws, who is second in the Big Ten with eight goals in as many games. She is also tied for second in shots (35) and ranked third in points with 17.

Senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo’s 31 shots in seven games has her tied for fifth. She also ties for second in assists with six and tied for seventh in points with 14.

Nationally, Illinois ranks seventh in scoring offense, sixth in points, eighth in assists and tied for second in goals.

Young defensive players improving play and confidence

Illinois’ 4-0 win over Florida International on Friday was not only the team’s first clean slate this season, but its first since the second round of the 2012 Big Ten Tournament when it beat Penn State 1-0 on Nov. 11.

“Certainly, a shutout feels good,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve felt what it’s like to have a clean sheet.”

Rayfield has put an emphasis on not just the defensive backline playing well, but the entire team being defensively disciplined. Against Florida International, the defense was stifling. The Panthers got off only seven shots, forcing freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley to make only one save. Rayfield has consistently praised Wheatley for making big saves throughout the season, even though Illinois’ 18 goals allowed are the most in the Big Ten through eight games.

“Our problem defensively hasn’t just been our back four or our goalkeeper,” Rayfield said. “In fact, our goalkeeper has made some great saves. It’s been our entire team defense, and we were certainly much better at that (against Florida International).”

Other young defenders include freshman Casey Conine and sophomore Amy Feher, who only became a regular starter late last season. Fortunately for them, seniors Christina Farrell and Kassidy Brown have been there all season to mentor their teammates. As a unit, they’ve struggled to consistently communicate and play cohesively, but Illinois’ last game seemed to indicate improvement.

“We’ve definitely been working a lot on getting everything together in the back,” Wheatley said. “And being able to communicate because we want to be constantly communicating.”

Illinois set to open Big Ten season at Ohio State

The Illini will travel to Columbus, Ohio, to take on Ohio State (6-1-1) on Friday to face yet another tough test.

The Buckeyes will prove a formidable defensive matchup with the Illini offense, ranking fourth in the Big Ten for goals allowed through eight games. Indiana, Iowa and Michigan are the only schools to have allowed fewer goals, each having played only seven games in 2013.

Rayfield and the players feel prepared, as they’ve already had to overcome a myriad of obstacles so far.

“I think we’re ready for Big Ten,” Rayfield said. “We’ve tested this team. We’ve played at Notre Dame. We’ve traveled to Arizona and Arizona State and played in (different) time zones and different temperatures and delays. We’ve thrown at this team just about everything that we could throw at them.”

Players like sophomore Reagan Robishaw do admit the results could have been better in nonconference play. They know that the complete team performance shown against Florida International will be the standard they need to reach if they want to succeed against Big Ten opponents.

“Nonconference, not exactly what we wanted to do,” Robishaw said. “And we got our first shutout (against Florida International), so we want to go ahead and keep that streak going and from there; we’re just going to keep battling and not going to give anyone an easy break.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and @AlexOrtiz2334.