Tuesday, I projected the order of finish in the 2011 Big Ten Women's Soccer season, with the Fighting Illini coming in fourth, behind Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. But how do the Illini get there? That's what I'll address today. Illinois is coming off a nice season in 2010, when they finished 13-5-1, including a fourth place Big Ten finish. This season, the Illini should have even more weapons on offense, with most of their goal-scoring returning, plus another influx of talented freshmen. Defense will be the question mark, at least early on, as the Illini look to replace center backs Danielle Kot and Krystin Miller, plus three-year starter Alex Kapicka in goal.
Let's take a look at this year's schedule:
Friday 8/19 vs. Gonzaga. The Bulldogs bring a young team to Champaign this week, as they're replacing five starters from last year's 8-11-1 campaign. Gonzaga is picked by West Conference coaches to finish tied for 8th in the nine-team league, and doesn't have a player on the preseason All-WCC team. It will be a homecoming for Bulldog assistant Billy Barmes, who worked for the Illini as an assistant coach last season after the departure of Christian Michner to take the head job at College of Charleston. Ultimately, the Illini will have too much firepower for the Bulldogs. Illinois 3 Gonzaga 1.
Sunday 8/21 vs. Toledo. Most people look at this game against a MAC opponent and think it should be an easy win. Not so fast, my friend. The Rockets went 1-0-2 against Big Ten competition last season, including a win in West Lafayette against Purdue. Then they tied NCAA qualifiers Michigan and Minnesota in Toledo. The Rockets had a very good regular season before faltering in the MAC tournament to miss out on an NCAA bid themselves. Toledo also returns nine starters from that squad, so it should be a good game this Sunday. I'll give the Illini the nod at home, but a different result wouldn't be a shock. Illinois 2 Toledo 1.
Friday 8/26 at Ball State. Like Toledo, Ball State is a team out of the MAC conference. They also beat Toledo last season on the final day of the regular season to deprive the Rockets of having the MAC regular season title to themselves. But that was one of the few bright spots for the Cardinals last season. An Illini loss here would be a big upset. Illinois 3 Ball State 0.
Sunday 8/28 at Louisville. It's an all-Cardinals weekend for the Illini when they battle Ball State and Louisville next week. Last season, the Illini put an end to Louisville's seven-game winning streak to start the year, blanking the Cardinals 3-0 in Champaign. That would be the beginning of a big slide for Louisville, which won just three more games in 2010. Louisville returns eight starters from that squad, but lost highly touted goalkeeper Taylor Vancil in a transfer to Florida State. Illinois 3 Louisville 1.
Friday 9/2 vs. USC. This is the marquis game of the Illini's non-conference schedule, with the Trojans traveling to Champaign in a rematch of last season's first-round NCAA matchup, which USC won 3-1. The Trojans are a young, but experienced squad that returns nine starters from last season's squad that fell to eventual national champion Notre Dame in the NCAA Second Round. USC plays a high pressure style that can result for some quality chances for the opposition, but they're awfully tough to keep off the scoreboard. This one could be a shootout. USC 3 Illinois 2.
Sunday 9/4 vs. Colorado. The Buffaloes, like Nebraska, have departed the Big 12 conference this season. They're playing in the new Pac 12 conference this season, which is a definite upgrade in competition for women's soccer. The Buffs had wins over top ten opponents UCLA and Texas A&M last season, but five one-goal losses kept Colorado out of postseason play. The Illini beat Colorado two years ago in Boulder by a score of 2-1. Look for Illinois to get the win here. Illinois 1 Colorado 0.
Friday 9/9 vs. Pepperdine (at LSU). This will be the first of three consecutive road weekends for the Orange and Blue as they travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but won't play the host Tigers. They'll face the Waves of Pepperdine in the opener, another team out of the West Coast Conference. Pepperdine boasted a stingy defense in 2010, allowing just 16 goals in 20 games. Goal scoring was a bit of an issue, as the Waves were shut out six times last year. The first goal might be enough to win this one. Illinois 1 Pepperdine 0.
Sunday 9/11 vs. Oregon (at LSU). The Ducks have struggled to gain traction in the Pac 12 conference (still feels weird to type that), as they again finished in the lower division with a 3-5-1 conference mark in 2010. Given the strength of the league, that may have been enough for an NCAA Tournament bid had the Ducks started the season stronger in non-conference play. But stumbles against UNLV and woeful Kansas in the same weekend effectively put an end to any postseason dreams. They also lost their best player from last season (Jen Stoltenburg) to graduation, who scored 12 of the Ducks' 29 goals on the season. Illinois 3 Oregon 1.
Sunday 9/18 at Iowa. The Hawkeyes struggled to another last place conference finish in 2010, including a 2-1 overtime loss to the Illini in Champaign. The Big Ten opener will be in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes picked up their last win in this series in 2008. Big Ten coaches picked Iowa to finish last this season. I was a bit more generous, saying that they would finish 11th. Big Ten road games are never easy, but look for Illinois to put this one in the win column. Illinois 2 Iowa 0.
Friday 9/23 at Ohio State. This is usually the toughest road trip in the Big Ten, and it should be no different in 2011. The Illini handed the Buckeyes one of just two conference losses they suffered in 2010. With the bulk of last year's Final Four team returning, OSU will look for some revenge against the Illini this season. Ohio State 2 Illinois 1.
Sunday 9/25 at Penn State. I'm not saying Illinois can't win this game, but history is not on their side. The Illini are 2-19 lifetime against the Nittany Lions, and have never won in State College. Penn State may not be the College Cup contender they were a few years ago, but they're still the class of the Big Ten and it will be a tall order to beat them on their home turf. Penn State 2 Illinois 0.
Friday 9/30 vs. Indiana. Coming off a tenth place season in 2010, Indiana returns some scoring punch in forwards Carly Samp and Orianica Velasquez, who combined for 15 goals a season ago. Defensively, IU struggled a season ago, allowing two goals per game. With the attacking personalities the Illini will throw at them, look for a few balls in the back of the net. Illinois 3 Indiana 1.
Sunday 10/2 vs. Purdue. Last year, Vanessa DiBernardo put on a show against the Boilermakers, scoring all four Illini goals in a 4-1 triumph. I would expect Purdue to mark the sophomore a bit more closely this time around, but that may open up some opportunities for other Illini attackers. The home team has won every game in this series since 2004. Illinois 2 Purdue 0.
Saturday 10/8 at Michigan State. In contrast to Penn State, Michigan State is a team that Illinois has enjoyed a great deal of success against over the years. The Illini's last "loss" to the Spartans was in a shootout in the 2008 Big Ten tournament, which goes down in the record books as a tie. That game was 0-0 after the overtime periods, and in fact, the Spartans have not scored a goal against the Illini defense since 2002. Will that trend continue? We'll see. Illinois 1 MIchigan State 0.
Friday 10/14 vs. Minnesota. The Illini dropped a tough 1-0 decision to the Gophers last season in Minneapolis. That team lost some valuable pieces, most notably forward Katie Bethke, who led the Big Ten in assists in 2010. The Gophers have some scorers returning, along with goalkeeper Cat Parkhill, but will likely take a step back from last year's team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16. Illinois 2 Minnesota 1.
Sunday 10/16 vs. Wisconsin. Last year's contest was a scoreless tie in Madison, and that was typical of the Badger defense a season ago. Wisconsin allowed just three goals in ten league matches, posting a 7-1-2 record. The thing keeping the Badgers from winning the Big Ten last year was an offense that totaled just 22 goals in 20 matches on the season. They return their leading scorer, Laurie Nosbusch, but she'll need some help up top. Illinois 0 Wisconsin 0.
Thursday 10/20 at Northwestern. Illinois has had some trouble with the Wildcats over the past few years, getting a 1-0 win last season for their first victory in the series since 2007. It's the Wildcat defense that has stymied the Illini recently, as the Illini were shut out by Northwestern in both 2008 and 2009. The 'cats have some issues on offense themselves, and this could easily be another low scoring Big Ten battle. Illinois 1 Northwestern 0.
Sunday 10/23 at Nebraska. Don't expect either side to post a clean sheet in this one. The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 last season by scoring an impressive 48 goals. However, they weren't exactly stingy on defense, allowing 34 tallies by their opponents. Forward Morgan Marlborough is one of the best goal scorers in the country, and the Illini defense will have their hands full marking her all afternoon. Illinois 3 Nebraska 2.
Saturday 10/29 vs. Michigan. Greg Ryan has the Wolverines contending again in the Big Ten, and they've beaten Illinois each of the last two seasons, including a 3-2 decision in Ann Arbor in 2010. This is probably a game that Illinois should win, but call it a hunch, I think the Wolverines will hand Illinois its second home loss of the season. Michigan 2 Illinois 1.
Projected Record: 14-4-1, 7-3-1 Big Ten (4th place).
Looking forward to the start of the season tomorrow night! I'll try to give predictions for all of the Big Ten games this week before the action gets underway tomorrow afternoon. Thanks for reading.