The Illini soccer team enters its Big Ten opener Sunday against visiting Iowa with a 3-3-1 record. Staff writer Jeff Huth pinpoints three key areas for Illinois as it looks to get on a roll:
The goal is goals
With rare exception, the Illini have struggled to put the ball in the net. In all but one of its seven matches, Illinois was held to one or no goals. So far, the Illini have managed six scores, with half coming in one match. To put that in perspective, the next least-prolific scoring team in the Big Ten has four more goals than the Illini. In fact, merely threatening the net has been a challenge at times. Among 12 Big Ten teams, the Illini rank 11th in shots and corner kicks. The return of junior Vanessa DiBernardo — the UI's leading scorer each of the past two seasons — undoubtedly will help, but this team needs to figure out a way to score more. The defense has been good enough (0.86 goals allowed per match) that even a little offensive boost could make a big difference.
Like DiBernardo, head coach Janet Rayfield has been absent since Aug. 9, serving as an assistant on the U.S. Under-20 National Team coaching staff. Now that she's helped Team USA win a gold medal, the 11th-year Illini coach can turn her full attention to her own team. This is no knock on assistant Jeff Freeman, who served as interim head coach while Rayfield was away. All three Illini losses so far were to teams ranked 17th or higher. And Rayfield would be the first to say that Freeman's work with the 2011 Illini was a major factor in that team winning a program-record 17 matches and capturing the Big Ten tournament title. But there's a reason USA Soccer regularly calls on Rayfield. She's among the best in her profession. Right now, especially, this team needs her knowledge and leadership.
A starting point
It's common for coaches to view their schedules in distinct segments, with the intent of keeping their athletes' focus on short-term goals and achievements. Typically, the start of the conference race marks the beginning of one of those segments. For this Illini team, such an approach might be particularly valuable. With Rayfield and DiBernardo back in time for the Big Ten opener, there really is a new dynamic to this team. It should be easy to adopt the approach that the league race offers a now-complete UI team a fresh start. It might be helpful to remind Illini players, too, that this team was highly regarded entering the season — ranked 19th nationally in the preseason and No. 22 in the first regular season poll. Even the following week, Illinois received the 29th-most points. Others had faith in the Illini. Is there any reason they shouldn't, too?