The Illinois soccer team will try to stay alive in the NCAA tournament when it faces host North Carolina at 5:30 p.m. Friday in a second-round match. Staff writer JEFF HUTH offers four storylines as the Illini try to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008.
The Illini (10-8-4) are on a roll, going 3-1-2 in their last six matches and winning both ties on penalty kicks. No. 13 North Carolina (11-5-2) can’t say the same.
The Tar Heels have lost two of their last four, including a 1-0 loss on their home field to Virginia in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. This clearly isn’t the same powerhouse North Carolina team that Illinois met in 2008 in the NCAA Sweet 16. Those Tar Heels rolled to a 3-0 win en route to the NCAA title.
So, what’s up with the erratic performances by the 20-time NCAA champions? Illini coach Janet Rayfield says one explanation is that four UNC players missed portions of this season while competing overseas for U.S. national teams. Those absences would have a disjointing effect on any college team, even one with the wealth of talent as the Tar Heels.
Rayfield’s Illini dealt with this same challenge when star junior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo missed the entire pre-Big Ten schedule while playing in Japan for the U.S. Under-20 National Team. “I think (this is) a game of two teams that have tried to put things together and two teams that have played some gritty soccer throughout the season,” Rayfield said, “and that’s the type of game it will probably be on Friday.”
You look familiar
Rayfield didn’t know it at the time, but while she served on the Team USA coaching staff for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, she was watching three players Illinois will need to contend with Friday.
The Tar Heel trio of Bryane Heaberlin, Kealia Ohai and Crystal Dunn joined DiBernardo in helping the Americans bring home a gold medal. In fact, Ohai scored the game-winning goal on an assist from Dunn in the 1-0 championship victory against Germany. The third Tar Heel, goalkeeper Heaberlin, made five saves in the title clincher. Another Tar Heel, freshman Summer Green, played this fall in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
Dunn is the only player in ACC history to twice be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. “She’s a special player,” Rayfield said. “She is the player that if (the Tar Heels) need something, Crystal is the one they can put probably anywhere on the field and try to get what they need. She’s got a great attack presence at times, as was shown ... in the U-20 World Cup final, but also an incredible defensive presence.”
If this or any of the Illini’s possible remaining matches come down to penalty kicks, Rayfield’s team certainly has reason to be confident. In the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals against Minnesota, Illinois capped a comeback from a 2-0 deficit by winning a penalty-kick shootout 3-2.
Then, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Illini again played through two scoreless overtimes but extended their season with a 3-0 edge in penalty kicks against host Missouri. Since there are no penalty-kick tiebreakers during the regular season, college teams only experience them during conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament.
It’s no coincidence that Rayfield lobbied for the Big Ten to reinstate its tournament in 2011 after it wasn’t held the previous two years. “Part of the reason we fought to get it back was so we could have those kind of experiences,” she said. “And the Big Ten tournament certainly has given us penalty-kick experience. And I think that’s invaluable going into postseason play. ... It gives us a little bit of confidence going into those because we’ve been there before.”
One of the feel-good stories of this Illini season is the emergence of junior forward Allie Osoba. A first-team all-stater as a senior at Orland Park Sandburg, Osoba did not play college soccer as a UI freshman. However, she made the Illini roster as a walk-on in the spring of 2011 and appeared in six matches that fall as a reserve midfielder.
“I think she’s a great story in the sense of someone who came to Illinois for all the reasons that students come to Illinois — great academics and whatnot — and decided ... that she really would like to extend her soccer career.” Osoba played so well this season that she not only earned growing playing time but was promoted to the starting lineup after scoring a game-winning goal against Indiana on Sept. 28.
She’ll enter Friday’s match with three goals — tied for second on the team. None was more important than her score against Missouri — Illinois’ lone tally en route to a penalty-kick win — in the NCAA tournament opener. But scoring reflects only part of Osoba’s value to this team.
“She’s really good with her back to the goal,” Rayfield said. “When defenders are putting pressure on from behind, she’s really shown an ability to hold the ball. And when you’ve got five in the midfield like we’re playing right now, it means she’s keeping the ball for us so we can get the ball to players like Vanessa and Nicole Denenberg.”