Defense still a work in progress for Illinois soccer

Nebraska’s junior forward Mayme Conroy had her way with the Illinois defense in last Sunday’s soccer match. She scored just seconds into the second half and again in the 61st minute to cement the 3-2 Cornhuskers win.

Although the Illinois soccer team has been improving steadily on defense, it still has not displayed the consistency head coach Janet Rayfield expects as the season nears its midpoint. Conroy was able to take advantage of miscommunications by the Illinois backline during the match. With a varied group of players on the backline (two seniors and two freshman), communication is vital.

“I think it’s coming along,” Rayfield said. “One of the things (about) marking in the box, the problem we had over the weekend, is really a communication piece of it and that starts from back to forward.”

Rayfield said horizontal communication among the defenders has been good. From senior Kassidy Brown on the right, to freshman Casey Conine and senior Christina Farrell in the middle, to sophomore Amy Feher on the left, the unit has shown improvement.

What Conroy stressed was a need for improvement in vertical communication, which includes the midfielders up the field. Conroy was moving up and down from the midfield to Illinois’ defensive third. This made it difficult for midfielders, like sophomore Taylor Peterson, to be able to know when to pass off defensive duties to an actual defender, especially when the midfielders are returning from an offensive possession. Peterson tends to stay back as a sort of defensive midfielder, but Rayfield likes to send several players, even at least one defender on set pieces and other scoring opportunities. With players like Peterson covering a lot of ground, when the opponent starts a counterattack, one miscommunication can prove disastrous.

One of the other vital communication lanes is between freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley and the defenders. Wheatley’s progress in goal scoring has become obvious to even the veterans.

“Even when the ball is way up on the attack end, you can hear Claire making sure that we have the girls on the outside who we can’t see,” Brown said. “So keeping just constantly talking, even if it’s just ‘Shift to the left,’ or ‘Shift to the right,’ (we’re) always being connected with each other.”

Wheatley has had to make a substantial improvement with not just her voice but with the words she uses. She said it was the details, like vocabulary, to which she had to adjust. Certain words are used differently in the college game than from what Wheatley was used to.

“I feel like I’ve always been communicating,” Wheatley said. “But it’s also about how effective you are in your communication and how the word choices you use are taken by the rest of your team.”

One other form of communication Rayfield emphasized to her defense is what body language says to the opponent. Quick turns in momentum can affect players’ confidence. Against Nebraska, after Illinois had leveled the score 2-2 behind Jannelle Flaws’ two goals, the Huskers took the lead again. Wheatley and the defense make it a point to shake off a defensive lapse or a miscommunication quickly and not make their frustration obvious.

“If you’re down on the ground or if I dive for the ball and it ends up going into the goal, you’re up right away,” Wheatley said. “Because you don’t want your team to just see you laying on the ground and you don’t want the other team to see you down there, either.”

Bits and pieces are working well for the Illini defensively, but it is a matter of putting it all together that is key moving forward. When the opponent has the ball, everyone from the forwards to the goalkeeper are defending. Rayfield expects her freshmen to play like veterans and her veterans to take on the role of leaders. The team is focusing on issues like vertical communication to help improve defense, not just in the backline but as a complete 11-player unit.

“We’re relying on some upperclassmen in wide, sporadic places,” Rayfield said. “And we’ve got to get more of a voice, collectively, all over the field.”

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