By KEVIN KOCZWARA
Ten months ago, the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team had their dreams dashed in heartbreaking fashion in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in as many seasons.
The Huskies, who finished the season 17-4-1, were defeated in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. This time, though, it wasn’t the heartbreak of penalty kicks that ended UConn’s season. Instead, it was a late goal in the final minutes by Creighton’s Christian Blandon that sent the Huskies back to Storrs, Connecticut.
This year, though the team isn’t thinking about avenging that loss or making it to the National Championship game. The Huskies are harping on the motto: one game at a time.
“My expectations are we are going to show up Friday at 7 [p.m.] and play [St. Francis, Brooklyn] and take it one day at a time,” UConn’s longtime head coach Ray Reid said to SBI.
Reid says he needs to see how his team will mesh this season, and that anything can happen, so he’s not looking too far ahead. He knows to make it to the National Championship game his team needs to qualify for the tournament and take care of business in the regular season first.
“We have to make the tournament and then if we make the tournament take care of business,” said Reid. “But, right now, we have to live in the now and get ready for St. Francis [Brooklyn]. We could have injuries — anything could happen. But if we get to that point [to the tournament] we have to do a good job.”
The Huskies lost a good collection of its core players from last year when three players were selected in the 2013 Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
Midfielder Carlos Alvarez became the second overall pick when he was chosen by Chivas USA, while Jossimar Sanchez, a 2012 All BIG-EAST First Team member, was selected with the 42nd overall pick by the New England Revolution, and Stephane Diop, a 2012 All-BIG EAST Third Team member, was selected with the 89th overall pick by the New York Red Bulls.
But the a good chunk of team’s core returns with seven starters, including two 2013 MAC Hermann Trophy candidates, senior forward Mamadou Diouf and junior goalkeeper Andre Blake, returning to Reid’s team.
Diouf is poised to have another stellar season for the Huskies. The forward has improved every season while playing for the Huskies and was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy last year after scoring 15 goals and adding two assists, good for a team high 32 points. He hopes to continue that form and lead UConn to something his impressive collection of achievements is missing: a National Championship.
“For me, this is my senior year, my final year, the last chance to try and win a National Championship,” said Diouf. “Every year we get close. I hope this is the year.”
Diouf and junior forward Allando Matheson should provide plenty of scoring for the Huskies this year, but the team’s strength in recent seasons has its defense.
The Husky defense has put up 28 shutouts in the last two seasons and last year allowed only 12 goals. While the Huskies will have to replace senior defender Max Wasserman, who was drafted by Real Salt Lake in the MLS Supplemental Draft, the team is returning its All-American goalkeeper, Blake, and an experience defensive unit that includes senior Michael Mercado and junior Sergio Campbell. Most importantly, for the defense, though, is the return of senior holding midfielder George Fochive, who started all 22 games for the Huskies last year.
Fochive, from Paris, France, is one of three Husky players, including Blake and Diouf, that Reid sees taking their game to the next level soon. The midfielder will have to be a leader in the center of the park again for the Huskies if they want to make an impression on the newly formed American Athletic Conference, which includes Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida, SMU, Central Florida and Memphis.
There is a sense of urgency from the Huskies team. While they know they have to take one game at a time, there is a feeling that for all of the handwork and wins, the team has nothing to show for it all.
Matheson, who figures to be a big part of the Huskies’ attack this year, says the team has nothing to show for what it’s done in the last three season and he wants something desperately to show for all the team has accomplished. But he’s sticking to the coach’s motto of because he knows you have to earn your way to the top.
“We’ve been stuck for a while,” Matheson, who scored seven goals and added one assist in 19 appearances last season, said to SBI. “I think we’ve had three good teams in the last three years and we have nothing to show for it. The only thing we have is a BIG EAST league championship, which we share with another team. I want to leave this school and leave my name in the book and say I did this [won a National Championship].
“Other than that we’re taking it one game at a time.”