After an up-and-down non-conference slate, the Illini soccer team starts Big Ten play this Friday at Ohio State. The end of the non-conference portion of the schedule is a good time to assess what we've seen so far from the Illini and their conference foes. Let's start by looking at the Illini's results to this point. I'm listing my preseason prediction for the game, followed by the actual result.
8/23 at Notre Dame. Prediction: L 2-1. Actual: L 4-1. Make no mistake, this is one of the toughest season openers that the Illini have played under Janet Rayfield. The Fighting Irish will be a Final Four contender.
8/25 at Louisville. Prediction: T 1-1. Actual: W 5-4 OT. Tim Ditman and I covered this game on WDWS, and it was the wildest soccer game I've ever called. Both teams were seemingly scoring at will, with the Illini getting the game winner from freshman Meegan Johnson in overtime.
8/30 vs. College of Charleston. Prediction: W 3-0. Actual: W 6-2. The Illini offense continued to pour it on vs. the Cougars, but defensive issues lingered.
9/1 vs. Illinois State. Prediction: W 3-1. Actual: W 5-1. A hat trick for forward Janelle Flaw propelled the Illini attack, even without All-American Vanessa DiBernardo, who was with the U.S. National Team in Washington, D.C.
9/6 at Arizona State. Prediction: L 2-1. Actual: L 4-3 OT. Desert heat, the time change, and a 90-minute weather delay were all working against the Illini in this one. Yet they managed to force overtime before falling to the Sun Devils.
9/8 vs. Arizona. Prediction: W 2-0. Actual: T 1-1. The Wildcats have been a bit better than expected under first-year coach Tony Amato, but the Illini had a late 1-0 lead before surrendering the equalizer on a penalty kick, after they were called for a handball in the box.
9/13 vs. Indiana State. Prediction: W 3-0. Actual: W 3-2. Janet Rayfield wasn't particularly pleased with this performance, which saw the Illini trailing 1-0 at the half before rallying with three straight goals in the second half.
9/15 vs. Florida International. Prediction: W 2-1. Actual: W 4-0. The Illini put together their best all-around performance of the non-conference season together in the last tune-up before Ohio State. It was their first shutout of the year, which had freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley in good spirits.
Predicted non-conference record: 5-2-1. Actual non-conference record: 5-2-1.
Around the Big Ten
Although the NCAA won't release its first official RPI report until early October, the good folks at nc-soccer.com have figured out the NCAA's secret formula and have started calculating RPI for us. Here are the Big Ten teams' RPI rankings through 9/17 with their record. (Updated through games of 9/18)
4. Penn State 6-1-1 The Nittany Lions got blitzed by Virginia 5-1 and tied West Virginia 2-2 in their season opener. It looks like they have some defensive issues to correct, as they've given up two goals in each of their last two games of the non-conference season.
13. Minnesota 7-1-0 Minnesota has probably been the biggest surprise of the non-conference season, suffering their only loss to perennial SEC favorite Florida. Time will tell how good wins over LSU and Ole Miss prove to be, but for now they look pretty solid.
40. Illinois 5-2-1 The best win RPI-wise for the Illini is over Louisville (74), but they didn't suffer any bad losses, as Notre Dame (8) and Arizona State (22) are looking good at this point in the season.
47. Michigan 6-1-0 The Wolverines were sailing along through their non-conference schedule, which included a quality win over Pepperdine (38), when they were tripped up at Butler (81). Midfield stalwart Tori McCombs missed that game with injury. Michigan needs to get her back to stabilize that part of the field.
50. Nebraska 4-2-1 Much like the Illini, Nebraska doesn't have a huge win on its resume. San Diego (95) is the highest-ranked win according to RPI. But losses to BYU (19) and Arkansas (17) haven't hurt the Cornhuskers.
75. Indiana 7-0-1 See Michigan State below. Indiana is in their first year under head coach Amy Berbary, who is trying to rebuild a program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2007. The Hoosiers finish up their non-conference season tonight against a solid Xavier team [NOTE: IU remained unbeaten with a 3-0 win]. A win there could give IU's RPI a little bump [NOTE: It did. IU moved from 106 to 75 after the win].
78. Ohio State 6-1-1 Every team from here on down needs to make significant RPI gains during the Big Ten season to have a chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The Buckeyes picked up wins over three teams that remain winless, which has hurt their RPI standing.
85. Wisconsin 5-1-1 The Badgers wrap up their non-conference schedule tonight against Green Bay (219). [NOTE: game cancelled because of an armed robbery in Madison] That game won't help them much, but Wisconsin has also been hurt by scheduling some usually solid teams having down years, the prime example being Oregon State.
91. Iowa 8-0-0 Oh, look. Iowa is unbeaten headed into Big Ten play. What's that? Oh, yeah. Iowa was also unbeaten in non-conference in 2011 and 2012 because they played a very weak schedule. They faltered in Big Ten play both seasons and missed the NCAA Tournament, largely because of their weak non-conference slate. Rinse and repeat.
108. Michigan State 6-0-2 The Spartans are also unbeaten heading into league play, also playing a light schedule. I won't give them as hard of a time as Iowa, as MSU finished at the bottom of the conference last year and are trying to build a bit of confidence.
120. Purdue 5-2-1 The Boilermakers have also played a pretty light non-conference slate (no teams in the RPI top 100), but have stumbled against Kansas and Xavier. Purdue's defense, once a staple under Rob Klatte, has continued its uneven play from a season ago.
212. Northwestern 2-4-1 I was expecting a stronger start from a Northwestern team that finished strong a season ago and returned much of its team under second-year coach Michael Moynihan. It looks like the defense has stabilized with three straight shutouts, but goals could again be hard to come by, as the Wildcats have tallied just seven scores in eight games.
Big Ten Predicted Standings
I'm making a few changes from what I predicted at the start of the season, based on what we've seen in the non-conference season. My preseason prediction is in parenthesis.
1. Penn State (1) I'll believe that someone else wins the Big Ten when I see it. The Nittany Lions do have some defensive issues to address.
2. Michigan (2) Although I still wish Greg Ryan would challenge his team a bit more in the non-conference season, they showed me enough with a win over Pepperdine to keep them in this spot.
3. Illinois (3) The defense (18 goals allowed) is still a concern, but after a shutout on Sunday, things seem to be headed in the right direction, and this team can score on just about anyone.
4. Wisconsin (4) Defense is also a bit of a concern in Madison, where the Badgers have pitched just one shutout so far. Wisconsin's attack looks to be the most potent its been since Paula Wilkins took the helm.
5. Minnesota (9) No team helped their profile more in the non-conference season than Stefanie Golan's Golden Gophers.
6. Ohio State (5) The Buckeyes have been winning, but not convincingly, over a fairly soft non-conference schedule. That said, the defense looks to be stingy, allowing just five goals in eight games.
7. Iowa (6) See my comments on Iowa above. Each year we wait for the breakthrough season from Ron Rainey's squad. Maybe this is the year, but I'm in "show me" mode with the Hawkeyes.
8. Nebraska (8) A solid non-conference season from the Cornhuskers, but nothing that compels me to move them up the standings.
9. Indiana (12) This is where I feel there's some separation between the top eight and bottom four. Not that one of these team's can't knock someone off, but I have a hard time seeing teams 9-12 moving up into the top eight. I'll give the Hoosiers the nod here because it looks like Berbary has the defense playing well, which should keep them in games.
10. Purdue (10) Think of them as the bizarro Indiana. Their attacking ability might enable them to steal a game or two, but the defense may allow more than they can score.
11. Northwestern (7) The Wildcats have the biggest drop from where I projected them in the preseason. A 2-4-1 record against a fairly weak schedule (except Notre Dame) will do that. If the defense has improved, as it appears, they could surprise a bit.
12. Michigan State (11) I don't see anything for the Spartans to hang their hats on. The offense has been good, but I don't think quite good enough against better teams. Same for the defense.
Top five games of the season
1. Michigan at Penn State 10/13. The Wolverines took Penn State to penalty kicks in the NCAA Tournament last year in State College. This should be a dandy.
2. Michigan at Illinois 10/25. Each of the last three seasons, these two teams have played to a 3-2 final score. Competitive matches with goal scoring? Yes, please!
3. Minnesota at Wisconsin 10/24. This is a great rivalry in every sport, and it's no exception on the pitch, as Minnesota is 2-1-1 in the last four regular season meetings, none decided by more than one goal.
4. Penn State at Wisconsin 10/4. Paula Wilkins has had good success against her former school, going 2-1-1 in the last four regular season meetings, a record against Penn State that no other Big Ten school can match.
5. Illinois at Ohio State 9/20. Ohio State is 2-1-1 against the Illini the last two seasons, as they've met in the Big Ten Tournament as well as the regular season both years. All decided by one goal or less (the tie went to Illinois on penalty kicks in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals).
Our next Illinois Soccer broadcast on WDWS-AM will be Sunday 9/29 vs. Nebraska. It's Soccer Fest, which is always fun. Until then, thanks for reading.