With two exhibition matches under its belt, the Illini soccer team kicks off the regular season at 7 p.m. Friday against Western Michigan at the Illinois Soccer Stadium. Staff writer JEFF HUTH previews the 19th-ranked Illini's prospects with five storylines:
Missing (but in action)
The Illini could be without their head coach and their best player until the Big Ten opener on Sept. 16. Junior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, Illinois' top goal scorer and point producer each of the last two seasons, is in Japan preparing for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup with other members of Team USA's U20 squad. With her is Illini coach Janet Rayfield, serving as an assistant on U.S. head coach Steve Swanson's staff. Team USA's opener is Aug. 20, and if it advances to the Final Four, the Americans would play their last match on Sept. 8 — one day before the Illini's nonconference finale. "USA is probably the best (U20) team in the world, so it would be an upset if they came back before the end of our nonconference season," UI interim coach Jeff Freeman said. Rayfield and DiBernardo were with the Illini for the first 10 days of training camp before departing Aug. 9 for what could be a month-long absence. "It's forcing us to become better," Freeman said. "As a coaching staff, our roles become a lot bigger with (Rayfield) gone. And from the players' perspective, a lot of their roles become bigger with Vanessa being gone." However, this is not a new circumstance for the staff or the returning players. DiBernardo and Rayfield were with the U20 team during lengthy portions of the Illini's training period and exhibition schedule in the spring, "They were gone so much ... that I think for the upperclassmen it was kind of another day in the life of an Illinois soccer player," Freeman said.
DiBernardo isn't the only prominent Illini who won't be on the field for the opener — and beyond. Forward Jannelle Flaws is out for the season, according to Freeman, with a knee injury that occurred during the spring. It was a recurrence of the ACL problem that also sidelined the redshirt sophomore as a true freshman in 2010. Last fall, Flaws appeared in all but two of the Illini's 24 matches, producing three goals and three assists as a reserve. Flaws' play earned her a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Illinois also will enter the season without highly regarded transfer Shannon Roche. The redshirt freshman defender, who started her college career at Miami (Fla.), has a "lower extremity" injury, Freeman said. Although Roche is participating in some limited training, she has not been cleared to play. Freeman said she will miss the opener, and he was uncertain how long she might be sidelined. These personnel losses follow a decision by defender Stephanie Pouse — who joined Flaws on the 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team — to quit the sport. Pouse has transferred to Illinois State. "I think our depth is being put to the test," Freeman said, "but I think it's a test that these guys are ready for, and certainly our freshmen have come in and helped that out a lot."
Speaking of freshmen
Don't be surprised if the Illini open their season with as many as three starters who are true freshmen. Tailor Smith of Highlands Ranch, Colo., will join two veteran defenders in the starting lineup. Taylore Peterson of Portage, Mich., and Nicole Breece of St. Louis have earned starting nods at midfield and forward, respectively. "Those guys are good," Freeman said. "They're talented. They've come a long way just in the last 10 days in terms of adjusting to the speed of the (college) game." Peterson, the brother of a current Major League Soccer player, was a three-time Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association Dream Team pick. Breece helped lead her club teams to a U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships runner-up finish and a U.S. Youth Soccer National League title. As a senior, Smith was MVP of a Mountain Vista High School team ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN.
From all appearances, the Illini should be able to put a potent attack on the field. Illinois returns five of its top seven point producers from a 2011 team that outscored foes 53-24, outshot them 423-248, and ranked 26th nationally in goals per match (2.21). "It was a great strength for us last year, for sure," Freeman said. The UI interim coach expects to open with Breece and seniors Niki Read and Marissa Holden at forward, which speaks to the depth Illinois has at this position since it means that Megan Pawloski will be coming off the bench. A year ago, the junior forward ranked third in goals and fourth in points for the Illini while scoring on a team-best 27.3 percent of her shot attempts. Pawloski accounted for two of Illinois' three goals in its two preseason exhibitions. In the absence of 2011 Big Ten Midfielder of the Year DiBernardo, seniors Nicole Denenberg and Kristen Gierman will join Peterson as starters in a new-look midfield unit that lost Marissa Mykines (a 2011 second-team All-Big Ten pick) and Julie Ewing to graduation. Gierman, who appeared in only five matches last season, scored on a penalty kick in the Illini's hard-earned 2-1 exhibition win against Kentucky. Freeman regards the Arlington Heights native as the team's most improved player from a year ago.
Back to basics
A year ago, Rayfield went against convention with a three-defender, five-midfielder alignment and saw it pay impressive dividends. With first-year starter Steph Panozzo in goal, the Illini limited opponents to an average of 0.969 goals per match and racked up nine shutouts. It wasn't an immediate success, but when the highly-coordinated defense hit its stride by late September, Illinois was one of the stingiest teams in the nation, permitting merely eight goals in its final 14 matches. The performance helped carry the Illini to a program-best 17 wins, a conference tournament title, and a first-round victory against defending champion Notre Dame. "The only way you can play that 3-5-2 system is for everyone to understand their roles, starting with the forwards, as the attacking players are the key to taking pressure off the back three," Freeman said. Even though Illinois now must replace Big Ten defender of the Jenna Carosio as well as Pouse and several midfielders who were vital to the 2011 defense, Freeman is confident about this area. "We did lose some great defenders off last year's team," he said, "But I look at our defensive end, and they're all very talented. I think that again is going to be a great strength for us even with the graduation from last year." Freeman indicated that Illinois will return this year to a traditional four-defender alignment as its mainstay scheme, with 2011 starters Kassidy Brown and Christina Farrell joined by Smith and converted forward Shayla Mutz. However, he expects the team to go with three defenders at times, too, as it did during the exhibition win against Kentucky.