Brown provides steady leadership for soccer defense

When senior Kassidy Brown arrived at Illinois in 2010, she not only had to adjust to playing college soccer, but she had to adjust to a new position. Brown was a forward at Carmel Catholic High School. It was not her offensive skills that Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield wanted to utilize though. So she switched the 5-foot-9 Brown to defense.

“I watched her play a lot in high school and in the club system,” Rayfield said. “And said, ‘You know, I think this kid is a good attacking player, but she’s not a great goal-scorer, so she’ll be a great player to attack out of the back.’”

It was Rayfield who proposed that Brown move to defender, and while it would mean taking on something new, Brown was up for the challenge.

“I don’t even think my mom knew what defense was before,” Brown said. “She looked at me and she’s like ‘What is that?’”

Fortunately for Brown, almost any position in soccer requires some high degree of versatility. Defenders are frequently called upon to help offensive attacks. Forwards and midfielders are usually the first line of defense when a change of possession occurs. Brown also had the benefit of seeing older players make similar transitions in their college careers. Rayfield has a history of changing players’ positions and calling upon them to play multiple positions.

“I think it was a lot easier than people think it is to play a different position,” Brown said. “I’m an open-minded person for it so I trust Janet and the coaching staff’s opinions.”

The move proved beneficial for both Brown and the Illini. She flourished on the back line. She was a starter during her freshman year and found her home as a fullback, or outside defender. In the 12 games she played before a knee injury, she had 11 starts. Illinois allowed the second-lowest goal total in program history that year with 16.

During her sophomore campaign, she started 21 of 24 matches and saw the field in every match. Illinois made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. By the start of her junior year, Brown was already being heralded as a “Player to Watch” by the Big Ten conference. She was also getting it done in the classroom with two Academic All-Big Ten honors.

But as with many defenders, it is not what Brown tallies on the stat sheet that has proved most valuable for the Illini. Now in her senior season, she has been rock solid on defense, and she doubles as a mentor to the young defenders playing alongside her. Just like the examples she had as a young player, she has tried to set an example for the next generation of Illini defenders.

“She’s confident,” freshman defender Casey Conine said. “She doesn’t get on your back about things. Obviously we want to push each other, but it’s in a positive manner so that we’re all getting better.”

That confidence was not always there though. Brown had to learn how to handle mistakes she made as a young player. She said she often stressed over mistakes but learned to stay positive. Now she tries to instill that same lesson on Conine and other young players like freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley.

The goal of getting better has been especially pertinent this season. Illinois struggled out of the gate defensively and a number of young players were put into the fire from opening day. Through the struggles, Brown has been solid on the right side. Even when the team was bogged down by injuries, she was one of many players who stepped up to fill the holes. Brown moved over to the central defender position and played well in a match against Iowa in Sept. 27, when fellow senior defender Christina Farrell was injured.

While Brown was not recruited for her offensive exploits, she has proved key in starting many offensive possessions. She is often the player taking a free kick from about midfield and putting the ball in positions for her teammates to score. She even scored her first collegiate, non-penalty kick goal last Sunday against Indiana after being moved into the midfield.

“Her value to this team has been like everyone (in that) she’s done whatever we’ve asked her to do,” Rayfield said “And she did it from the time she was a freshman. … She said ‘You know best and I’ll do whatever I can do to help the team.’”

With a vast knowledge and the experience of playing multiple positions, Brown now looks to push her team, especially the defense, to assert itself this season. It has not always been easy for the Illini in 2013 but the Big Ten is expected to be as wide open as ever until the end. Regardless of how Illinois’ record or place in the standings fluctuates, it knows it will have Brown as a rock on defense, or wherever else the team might need her.

“Kass is doing everything she can to help lead those younger players,” Rayfield said. “To help give them confidence, to help create this stable, confident wall that we certainly look to have going forward.”

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