Photo by Steve Slade/ UConn Athletics
By TIM FONTENAULT
High expectations are nothing new for the UConn men’s soccer team. As a perennial powerhouse and producer of top talent, the Huskies start almost every season ranked among the nation’s best, and as a favorite to win a conference title, if not more.
This year is no different, and despite losing a standout goalkeeper and top MLS draft pick Andre Blake, the Huskies will look to improve on their NCAA quarterfinal finish of 2013, which happens to be the same place UConn has finished in each of the past three seasons.
Last year’s up-and-down season ended at Virginia. The Huskies, fresh off a win in penalties at No. 1 UCLA, stumbled out of the tournament with a 2-1 loss to the Cavaliers.
“Last year was so close,” senior midfielder Adria Beso Marco said. “I think we were better than Virginia, but probably we traveled too much last year. But we always need that extra step that’s going to make us get there. Hopefully this year is going to be the year.”
This year could indeed be the year for the Huskies, who look to be deeper than in recent years.
The Huskies will send out one of the most lethal attacking teams in the nation. Led by preseason all-conference selections Beso Marco, Cyle Larin and Allando Matheson, UConn’s attack also includes speedy playmakers like Ethan Decker, Edir DaGraca and Nick Zuniga, who will all play a big role for the Huskies this season.
“I would be scared (if I was an opponent),” Beso Marco said. “I would have a lot of respect for these guys.”
The concern, if there is any, that people have with the Huskies is in goal. After three outstanding seasons, Andre Blake chose to forgo his senior year and turn pro. He became the No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
UConn head coach Ray Reid has been preparing for Blake’s departure, and has some good options in goal to replace the Jamaican shot-stopper.
Last year, Scott Levene came in and spent the season on the bench, watching and learning from Blake. Now, he hopes that he can fulfill a lifelong dream of starting for the Huskies by winning the starting job over former junior college All-American Triston Henry and redshirt junior Jake Wagmeister, who recorded two straight clean sheets while filling in for Blake in 2013.
Being a goalkeeper at UConn comes with an excellent bonus: having one of the best defenses in the nation.
Anchored by Sergio Campbell, the AAC Preseason Defender of the Year, UConn’s back line should be able to keep the goalkeeper’s workload at a minimum. Will it be as strong as the defense that helped keep 15 clean sheets, including nine in a row at one point, during the 2011 season? Time will tell, but the talent is there.
“As a new guy, trust me, I love having a good defense,” Levene said. “With Serge back and healthy, he’s going to make a world of difference, and I can’t wait to play with some. And some of the other defenders we have are excellent defenders, absolutely amazing.”
The Huskies know what they are capable of and they know what happened in the past. If all the talent at Reid’s disposal comes together as one unit, this is a team that should win a lot of games in 2014. This might even be the team that finally exorcises the demons of tournaments past and plays its way straight to the Final Four.