The Illini women’s soccer team is headed to Lincoln, Neb., for Round 2 — and hopes to stick around for Round 3 — of the NCAA tournament on Friday (11 a.m.). Staff writer Jeff Huth offers four storylines as Illinois (10-8-3) prepares to face No. 7 Portland (17-2-1).
As No. 21 Washington State discovered Saturday in the first round, it’s usually best to avoid getting into a penalty-kick duel with the Illini. By outscoring the Cougars 3-1 in penalty kicks, Illinois improved to 6-1 in matches decided in that manner since 2007. The current junior and senior classes are undefeated in four penalty-kick shootouts.
Understandably, it’s a point of pride — and a source of confidence — for the Illini. Should Illinois and Portland be unable to settle matters in regulation and two overtimes, the Illini would have every reason to believe they have the favored Pilots right where they want them. “I think most teams playing against us don’t want to be in that situation because of that history,” UI coach Janet Rayfield said this week. “Certainly history plays into our favor at this point because I think it gets into the minds of our opponents.” What’s the formula for success in PK shootouts? Great goaltending and confident ball strikers, Rayfield says. “When you put those two things together, that’s a situation that breeds for success in that particular environment,” she said. “I think we’ve been fortunate to have that over the years, and so our track record there is pretty good.”
Illinois entered the NCAA tournament on the heels of an ugly defensive performance. When Indiana bolted to a 3-0 lead by the 37th minute of the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, the outcome was all but decided in a 5-3 Illinois loss. It wasn’t the first time this UI defense had taken such a beating. In fact, it marked the fifth match in which goalkeeper Claire Wheatley and the four defenders in Rayfield’s 4-4-2 formation yielded four or more goals.
“Our defense has taken a lot of heat during the season,” the UI coach admitted. It was difficult to know what to expect when the Illini headed to Pullman, Wash., for the NCAA’s first round. But on a field made soft and slick by about an inch of snow that fell overnight, the Illinois defense was every bit the equal of a stingy Washington State unit that entered with 14 shutouts this season. Through regulation and two overtimes — 110 minutes total — this was a 0-0 standoff. “It was four players doing everything they could, as well our goalkeeper, to keep the ball out of the net,” Rayfield said, referring to defenders Aliina Weykamp, Casey Conine, Christina Farrell and Amy Feher.
“On a muddy day like that, it meant sliding, it meant slipping, it meant putting a piece of their body in front of the ball. I think we’ve got several players with ball marks — one that was bleeding and put mud on it to keep it from bleeding.” How will the Illini defense fare in the second round? Given its up-and-down record, that’s anybody’s guess. But, as Illinois proved against Washington State on the road, its defense is capable of rising to the task.
That’s the indelicate way of describing the offensive style of Illinois’ next opponent. With their ball-control scheme, the Pilots live by the adage that if the other team doesn’t have the ball, it can’t score. “I think they’re one of those teams that (tries to) wear you down,” Rayfield said. “They keep the ball; they pass the ball around. They probe. They’re probably more patient than any team we’ve faced this far (this season).” What’s an opponent to do? First of all, keep your head and keep to your assignment, the Illini coach says.
“Certainly we’re going to have to show our patience defensively,” Rayfield said. “Make sure our ‘D’ is tight, but you don’t want to chase. If you chase, then you do what they want you to do is chase and get tired, and then they’ll come at (you).” The Illini defense will need to be on guard against multiple threats. Six Pilots have scored at least four goals, but none more than eight. “Scoring across the board” is how Rayfield described Portland’s diverse attack. “It’s a team in every sense of the word.” Given Portland’s style, it figures to be important for Illinois to capitalize on its own possessions, which could be fewer than usual. “It could be one of those games where ... it’s the one (scoring) opportunity — and who can finish that,” Rayfield said.
Portland might not be a household name among the nation’s college football and basketball fans, but it’s known and respected among soccer followers. This is a program with two national titles, eight College Cup (Final Four) appearances, and 21 NCAA tournament trips, including each of the last 14 years. “It’s just become a soccer powerhouse,” Rayfield said. “And they have a huge fan support and fan base on both the men’s and women’s team. It’s a team with a storied success and a storied coaching history.”
The late Clive Charles, who coached the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 2000, got the ball rolling at Portland in 1986 with the men’s team and added coaching duties for the women in 1989. Charles coached the two Pilots squads to seven Final Four appearances and a combined 439 wins, capping his career in 2002 by guiding the women to the NCAA title. It’s a program that continues to burn bright, one of several reasons Rayfield is grateful this match will be played at a neutral site rather than on the third-seeded Pilots’ field. The lone previous Illini-Portland meeting was held on the latter’s campus in 2009, and it did not go well for Rayfield’s team. A second-ranked Pilots team rolled 4-1. “Certainly happy that we’re playing them at a neutral venue and not in front of their 5,000 fans, because they certainly have a great following,” Rayfield said.
The Illini’s recent postseason history reinforces the neutral-field preference. In each of its previous two NCAA tournaments, Illinois lost in the second round to a host team — to Oklahoma State in 2011 and to North Carolina last year. “It’s kind of exciting to play that level of a game at what truly could be a neutral venue,” Rayfield said of Friday’s match. “To have a neutral game in this second round is an opportunity, and an opportunity that this team should take advantage of.”