From the time they took the field for their first match back in August, the UConn men's soccer team was one of the best in the nation. A sure-thing contender for the national championship.
On Sunday, their season came to a stunning and sudden halt with a 1-0 loss to Creighton in the NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals.
For a team as good as UConn was this season, anything but a trip to the College Cup and ultimately a national championship could be seen as utter failure.
So what went wrong?
I have had four days to digest the loss at this point and I have realized that there is one simple answer: There are only 90 minutes in a soccer game, not 95.
Junior forward Mamadou Doudou Diouf said that after Creighton scored with 90 seconds to play, all the team needed was another five minutes at the most.
The Huskies dominated the Blue Jays from start to finish on Sunday. They had every opportunity to take the lead, and even after Creighton scored, they had a few chances in the final seconds. But the difference in the game came in the form of a goalkeeper that could rival UConn's Andre Blake talent-wise, Creighton's freshman keeper Jeff Gal.
Gal was supernatural between the posts, and the Huskies simply could not catch a break against him. However, the longer the match went, the closer and closer UConn got to breaking him. Like Diouf said, all they needed was a couple more minutes.
Some like to point to the tendency of goalkeeper Andre Blake to play overaggressively at times, as he was off his line when the goal went in. But Blake's decision making has never been something worth questioning, as the Big East Goalkeeper of the Year has been coined a "goalie god" by the student section for his fearless charges to the edge of his box to stop an attacking player who somehow broke through his defense.
The defense. That is the other area that fans have turned to for an explanation for UConn's loss. Obviously, if a goal goes in, the first group to get blamed is the defense. Something could have been done to prevent the goal, sure. But it was a great play by a great team. It would have been nice to see a midfielder check back and cover the player that was flying in to the attacking third from the right, but it was a brilliant counter attack.
"If only Jossimar Sanchez wasn't hurt," is a statement that I have heard after every UConn loss or close call. Sanchez is an incredible leader and a great defender. His absence was felt, but junior Michael Mercado stepped in at center back and played incredible soccer for the last two months of the season.
On Sunday, UConn played the greatest tournament game I have seen them play in the last three years. Unfortunately, the result did not match the performance, and that does not have anything to do with anything UConn did wrong. As head coach Ray Reid pointed out after the game, soccer is a cruel sport. You can dominate the full 90 and still come away with a loss.
All UConn can do is move on from this loss and look ahead to next season. There are a lot of positives. It will be a young team with a lot of talent and strong leadership. The loss came with the uplifting note that Diouf promised he will return for his senior season, stopping the offseason speculation before it began.
UConn loses some key players in the senior class, and it is still not known whether Blake will return for his junior season or not. Despite this, UConn only has a couple of starters to replace, and given the talent on the bench and Reid's ability to recruit internationally, the Huskies will come back strong in 2013.
Meanwhile, this offseason players and fans will look back and think, "What if we had a couple more minutes?"
Everything would have been different.