photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
If ending a season on a penalty shootout loss is tough to swallow, the UConn Huskies were surely more than demoralized last year. After all, their penalty kick defeat to Charlotte in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament marked the third straight season in which UConn had their hopes of winning a national championship dashed in such a manner.
That bitter and stinging memory is still fresh in the minds of some of the returning Huskies, many of whom can be seen wearing blue bracelets with the words 'unfinished business' on them. And while they are adamant about moving on from that disappointment, they are hoping this will be the season that sees them overcome that challenging hump.
Still boasting one of the more talented sides in college soccer, UConn are once again among the favorites to make a deep run at the national title in 2012. Led by senior forwards Carlos Alvarez and Stephane Diop, the Huskies have a team that can be as lethal as any, so long as they avoid the type of scoring droughts that have seemed to plague them during the latter months of the past few seasons.
"I don't know if it's a mentality thing or a team thing (but) since I've been here, the last three years that's what's happened," Alvarez, a team captain, told SBI. "We just talk over and over and try to come to conclusions, but there's so many conclusions you can come out to."
The Huskies may not have a definitive answer as to why they have trouble finding the back of the net once November rolls around, but they are concentrated on the task at hand, starting with St. Francis on Friday.
"Yeah it's in the back of our heads, but it's just the past for us," said Alvarez. "We're just moving on. This is a new season and a new team, even though we have the same people, and we're just going to work a day at a time and stay focused."
Many of UConn's top contributors from last season have returned, including redshirt junior midfielder Colin Bradley, junior forward Mamadou Doudou Diouf, senior midfielder Jossimar Sanchez and sophomore goalkeeper Andre Blake. But as is usually the case with the program, some standout players have moved on and need replacing.
Among that group are forward Tony Cascio and defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who were drafted by the Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers, respectively, this past January. Still, Huskies head coach Ray Reid is confident that the incoming class of players will help fill the holes.
"When you have a good program, you've got to constantly replace good players," Reid told SBI. "It's a good problem. We've got a good group coming in (but) replacing Cascio will be difficult."
There is no question that Cascio was one of the main cogs for UConn in 2011. He accounted for five goals and eight assists last season and was a primary reason that the Huskies were able to win their first 11 games and 13 of the first 14. Still, even he could not stop the late-season slip that the team suffered nor their seemingly annual penalty kick defeat in the NCAA tournament.
"It's been heartbreaking, but at the end of the day you can't prepare for penalty kicks," said Alvarez. "You either do it on the field, or if you go to penalty kicks, it's who has the best of luck and the best guys that are going to take the penalty kicks and that have the guts to actually take the penalty kicks in front of big crowds and bury them. You never know. It can go good for the day or bad for the day."
The Huskies' schedule in 2012 is not the hardest they have ever had, so coming away with a record similar to the 14-2-2 they posted last year is not out of the realm of possibilities. In fact, UConn have a number of goals they hope to accomplish by season's end.
"As a program it's just winning the regular season, protecting home turf, winning each game at home, winning the Big East tournament and make it to the final four," said Alvarez before adding another. "Obviously, for each college team it's winning the national championship."
That's unfinished business, to say the least.