Possession, versatility fuel Illini soccer’s early offensive success

If there are two things the Illinois soccer team has focused on offensively, they have been possession and versatility.

Illinois constantly refers to itself as a “possession-oriented team.” Almost without fail, once the team receives possession to start the game, opponents have found it hard to regain possession. The first 10 minutes of most games look like field-wide passing clinics.

“I think we’re a technical team who likes to keep the ball … and work with each other and get numbers around the ball,” senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo said.

When midfielders are looking for a passing lane, what they do with the ball is just as important as what their teammates do without the ball. This aspect of moving without the ball can go unnoticed, but is vitally important in the game. With a player like DiBernardo, who attracts so much attention, other players can benefit and help her attack weak spots. If she even looks like a threat to receive the ball, multiple defenders keep an eye on her, which can open up an entire side of the field.

Forwards, such as junior Jannelle Flaws, are also needed to make runs behind defenders, while staying onside to give their teammates space, time and options. Flaws has scored eight goals this season due in part to her field awareness and how she positions her body in a way to best receive a pass.

“As a forward, you’re trying to either slow down the pace if we’re frantic,” Flaws said. “Or trying (to) pick it up by making runs in behind and threatening backlines.”

One of the other luxuries the Illini enjoy is having so many weapons that can strike at any time. Illinois’ 28 goals in eight games have been scored by 11 different players this season. The scores have ranged from freshman defender Casey Conine jumping over opponents on set pieces to Flaws firing from outside the box. The offense can score in any way possible.

“We said coming into this season (that) one of our goals is to get seven players in the game with a shot on frame,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “So that a team has to defend all of us, and we’ve done that almost every game of the season.”

Last Sunday’s match against Florida International was an example of such versatility. Both Reagan Robishaw and Megan Pawloski came off the bench and scored two goals a piece for the 4-0 victory. Illinois also likes to crowd the box, making it difficult for opponents to cleanly clear the ball due to intense pressure. Robishaw and Pawloski scored off rebounds, and there were a number of other teammates who could have taken advantage.

Finally, to have a solid offensive showing, the Illini have paid attention to the details. Everything from what side a cross comes from to which foot a player angles toward the goal on a turn against a defender matters.

“You put them in the best position to score goals,” Rayfield said. “You talk about framing the goal. You talk about where your body position is. You talk about where the serve comes from and what gives us the highest percentage … of getting a person free in the box.”

It may seem like a relatively simple formula, but the execution of it is what makes a game of such finesse so difficult. Through eight games, Illinois has executed it about as well as any team in the country as it ranks second in the nation goals scored.

“Our team is a good offensive team,” Rayfield said. “And it doesn’t matter who gets to the end line and who’s making the run in the box … and that makes us a difficult team to defend because you’re defending our team, not just a person.”

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