Soccer set to play Iowa, Nebraska this weekend

The Illinois soccer team will host Iowa on Friday and Nebraska on Sunday, as the team hopes to gain ground at the top of the Big Ten standings.

This year, the conference is especially tight. Only one team, Northwestern, has lost more than three games.

“You look at the Big Ten and you’re going to say the same thing every week: It’s a tough weekend,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “There is not going to be an easy game in the Big Ten.”

Iowa’s (8-1-0) only loss of the season came against Michigan 2-1. While the Hawkeyes have scored only the 10th most goals in the Big Ten, their six goals allowed is tied for the third fewest in the Big Ten. They’ve taken more than twice as many shots, 150, as they’ve allowed, 65. Iowa has shutout five teams, including a four-game shutout streak between Aug. 30 and Sep. 8. Iowa goalkeeper Hannah Clark has only had to make half as many saves, 21, as Illinois keeper Claire Wheatley (42).

With Illinois’ offense still ranking among the best in the nation, the matchup of the Illini offense against the Hawkeye defense will prove the key to the match. With Iowa allowing so few shots and shots on goal this season, and Illinois having taken the second-most shots in the Big Ten with 188, something will have to give.

One of the primary concerns for Iowa would be Jannelle Flaws, who still ranks among the leaders in goals and shots in the Big Ten. The concern is mutual. 

“It’s going to be a hard fought battle,” Flaws said. “Everyone goes into every game wanting to get that win, especially on our home turf. We just got to defend it.”

With two home games this weekend and the Big Ten posing as much of a challenge as ever, it is vital that the Illini capitalize on the home field advantage. The regular season is already nearing its midpoint. 

“It’s huge,” Rayfield said. “And people talk about home field advantage, whether it’s the crowd, or the surface or all of those things. The size of the field is different, so you know your home field. It’s your place and traditionally that’s been where teams are difficult to beat, and we certainly have to be that way in the Big Ten.”

Against Nebraska, the Illini will face a balanced attack that has stayed in a number of tight games for a 6-2-1 record, which includes a 2-1 win against No. 14 Denver. Illinois will also be preparing for Jaycie Johnson, who leads the Huskers with seven goals this season.

With so many formidable opponents in the Big Ten week after week, Illinois knows the challenge of trying to maintain a focus and persistence is vital.

“I think just not looking ahead in your schedule and just really focusing on that next game is going to really be able to (help us) mentally stay in the season,” senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo said.

Friday’s match against Iowa is at 7 p.m. and Sunday’s match against Nebraska is at 1 p.m., both at Illinois Soccer Stadium.

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