Soccer to play Northwestern and Penn State

The Illinois soccer team has another opportunity to gain valuable ground in the Big Ten standings within a week’s time. The Illini will play against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., on Thursday night and against Penn State in State College, Penn., on Sunday.

Coming off a big win against Wisconsin, Illinois looks to these two matches with confidence, but they know that even a team like the Northwestern Wildcats (3-9-2, 1-5-0) cannot be taken lightly. All but two of Northwestern’s nine losses this season have been by a deficit of one goal. The team has played five overtime matches and is coming off its first conference win of the season against Minnesota.

“It gives them hope,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “And hope can be a dangerous thing.”

With the Big Ten as wide open as ever this season, Northwestern is still only a couple of wins out of eligibility for the Big Ten Tournament, despite being at the bottom of the standings.

While the Wildcats have struggled tremendously on offense this season, their defense is a more organized group. Rayfield lauded their intelligent play at the back and said the Illini will have to really work for goals.

“It means we’re going to have to work,” Rayfield said. “It means we’re going to have to break them down, keep the ball and move and make great movements and great runs in order to open up ourselves to get shots.”

The playing surface in Evanston will also present a unique challenge. Northwestern plays on turf, which tends to create much faster play. To prepare, the Illini held practice at the Irwin Indoor Facility. Freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley is used to the surface because she played most of her high school career on turf.

Illinois will also look to not allow a letdown like last season when with a 1-0 lead, the Illini allowed the Wildcats to score two goals in the final ten minutes of the match. Whenever the two opponents get together, Northwestern always tends to play a little harder than its record might suggest.

“It’s just probably one of those things,” junior forward Jannelle Flaws said. “I think especially being an in-state rival team is definitely something for them.”

The Illini will play at Penn State on Sunday to take on the best offensive team in the conference. The Nittany Lions have taken the most shots, scored the most goals, assists and points so far this season.

Senior forward Maya Hayes has been right there with Flaws as one of the top scoring threats in the Big Ten. Hayes is tied with Flaws for the most points (goals and assists) and is second in goals with 13 in 14 matches.

To improve defensively from the Wisconsin match, Rayfield said the team needs to do a better job at clearing the ball from its box and staying composed. Against a dangerous Penn State, that lesson is especially vital.

“We’ve got to get to the point of it’s extremely urgent without panicking in our own defensive box,” Rayfield said.

With two wins, Illinois would remain alive and well to play in the Big Ten Tournament it hosts in November.

On the injury front for this weekend, senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo’s progress on her sprained knee remains in question. After missing four games in a row, Rayfield admits that DiBernardo’s healing process is moving a little more slowly than expected.

“I’m just taking it day by day,” DiBernardo said. “(I’m) seeing the doctors and talking with them and whenever they’re ready and allow me to go back on the field, I will.”

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