A single forward comes charging down the field. He has already broken through Belmont’s carefully constructed defensive line. Now all that stands between him and a goal is a 6-foot-2-inch Finnish goalie named Juho Illi.
Illi has two options: Allow the forward to shoot, but admittedly not likely to stop the shot, or postpone the shot by taking a risk.
For Illi, the risk is well worth it.
The goalie brushes his shoulder-length blond hair off his face and charges the forward, tackling him down. The referee gives him a yellow warning card and rewards the opposing team with a penalty kick.
“It should have been a red card,” he said. “I had no choice but to take him down.”
Although it was a risky move, to Illi it was a calculated attempt to protect the goal.
During the penalty kick, spectators unsuccessfully attempted to distract Illi by calling him “Sunshine” and “Little Girl” because of his golden locks.
The penalty kick is deflected. Illi’s gamble paid off.
Illi’s ability to think ahead of the play is a major strength in his game. Coaches and players alike refer to the senior as a “smart,” “intelligent” and a “heady player.”
His intelligence and hard work ethic on the field carries over to the classroom, as Illi maintains a 3.0 GPA and takes on a heavy course load of 18 credit hours. His extra workload for a student-athlete is Illi’s way of keeping himself busy and pushing himself to the limit.
“I would never play soccer to play around,” he said. “I hate losing. I take it seriously. Like everything I do in life, I do it well.”
Illi began his lifelong love of soccer at the age of 4. At 10, his natural talent landed him in the goal. Soccer provided an outlet for Illi to grow and mature and also provided opportunities for advancement.
“Soccer is why I’m in the university,” he said. “I wouldn’t be in the United States, wouldn’t have met all the great friends I’ve got. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to do something stupid if not for soccer. “
Now, it’s a big part of his life.
After becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school, Illi entered the military, which is a requirement for all male Finns. He played soccer on the military team and received special privileges through his talent. Once he served the required year of service, Illi wanted to continue his education and soccer career.
In 2008, he moved to New Jersey to play soccer for Fairleigh Dickson University. After two seasons Illi to transferred to Belmont for the 2010 season.
Head Coach Earle Davidson believed Illi was exactly what Belmont was looking for, a perfect fit with the team dynamics.
“Illi is obviously a good player but also a good leader, which is a major factor in his positive impact on the team,” Davidson said.
It took barely a semester for Illi to settle in and get comfortable with the team. The pre-season team building activities and friendly players made the process easier.
“It seemed like the place I wanted to be,” he said. “The team and atmosphere just seemed great. I never visited but wasn’t nervous about coming here at all. I like to meet new people and go new places.”
The team knows and respects his skill as well as his experience. Illi is dedicated to the team and holds a position on the captain leadership council. Teammates see this dedication and recognize him is a tough, smart player who keeps the others accountable on the field.
“He demands a lot out of everyone, organizes the back, and does what he needs to get the job done,” defender Bradley Shuck said. “He sees everything and lets us know what to do. It makes our job easier.”
As Illi’s teammates and coaches know, his real strength is his ability to analyze the situation and act accordingly, not the use of his sheer physical presence to prevent goals.
“I guess it takes a certain type of personality to play goalie,” Illi said. “People say goalies are all crazy. I even had a coach tell me that you can’t be too smart to be a goalkeeper.”
Personality does play a part in Illi’s success. A self-described positive, laid-back nature allows him to objectively look at a situation. Add in his natural tendency to organize, and he becomes a deadly force in the goal.
“Illi’s personality is an important part of his game,” Davidson said. “I can see strengths of his personality both on and off the field. His personality is consistent.”
Illi’s intelligence allows him to eliminate threats on the goal by setting up the defensive players on the field and to read the opponents. Assistant coach Eric Susewind works with him and the other goalies on their techniques.
“Illi is a tough competitor, mature, brings his physical prowess, composure and power in the goal,” Susewind said. “He’s always confident, reads the game very well and able to eliminate threats before they happen.”
For Illi, his organizing, voicing what he sees, and dedication to the team comes naturally. He brushes off the praises of his teammates and coaches; he said he’s only doing what is asked of him.
Midway through last season, Illi was benched because of worn-out joint and a torn labrum in his hip. After undergoing surgery in mid-March and spending the entire summer in therapy, the senior is ready to be back on the field.
“I am not 100 percent yet and I don’t know when it will be all right but I keep working hard every day and hopefully when the games begin I am ready to go,” Illi said.
During his final year at Belmont, Illi is exploring ideas for his future. But on the field, his goals are simple.
“I want to help Belmont win their first and last A-Sun title,” said Illi. “And of course beat Lipscomb.”