I have a victory hangover this morning. The kind of victory hangover that comes from a historic win after your alma mater has spent the last two years getting taken out to the woodshed and beaten mercilessly by the NCAA and conference realignment. The kind of victory hangover that comes after the men’s soccer team travels 3000 miles across the country to play the #1 team in the nation, falls behind 2-0 within 15 minutes of play, then 3-2, then twice in penalty kicks, and comes away with a win. The kind of victory hangover where you spend the next day watching on repeat the YouTube videos of the penalty shootout and the UConn fans storming the field in Westwood. This was one for the history books of UConn Men’s Soccer.
The turnout for the game on UConn’s side was quite frankly, remarkable. The Huskies last night were buoyed by hundreds of friends, family, and local alumni that almost equaled the number of UCLA supporters, but surely outdid the Bruins faithful by being louder, more supportive, and more engaged throughout the game. At one point, the fans were so loud in the UConn section that the players couldn’t hear the referee’s whistle. And at the end of it all, UConn players and fans alike were able to celebrate the moment together on a field 3000 miles from Storrs.
The game itself was very well-played, from two of the best teams in college soccer. Any objective observer would have to say that UConn was the better team last night. UCLA won the first 15 minutes, and the last 5 of regulation when UConn bunkered down in the defensive half too much, but the Huskies controlled the remainder of the game. UConn outshot the Bruins 17-11 and created many more quality scoring opportunities throughout.
Outside backs Jakob Nerwinski and Kwame Awuah wore out the grass on the offensive-half sidelines with their overlapping runs all game, pestering the UCLA defense and providing quality crosses into the box for Cyle Larin and Mamadou Diouf. The second UConn goal to tie the game came off an Awuah run down the sideline and an absolutely stunning outside-footed strike from the top of the box that curved away from the UCLA keeper into the bottom left 90 of the net.
Midfielder Adria Beso was superb in the center mid role, controlling the pace of the action for much of the game and distributing to the wings and strikers with poise and precision. Diouf, always dangerous in the box, was unfortunate not to put one home last night after a few great opportunities. His redirection off a last second corner in the second half was inches from snatching victory in regulation before it was cleared away by the defender manning the post.
And what can you say about keeper Andre Blake that hasn’t been said already? Blake could do nothing on all three UCLA goals, especially the PK after the harsh call in the box for the second goal. After UConn went down 2-0, it seemed like we were in for another one of those tortuous Men’s Soccer games that leaves everyone heart-broken and dreaming of what could have been.
But there was Blake, standing tall in the net during a penalty shootout that has historically been the kryptonite to UConn’s tournament runs. On UCLA’s five penalties, Blake was fantastic, getting his hand on two, having one sail high, and then there was the save that sent the Huskies and fans spraying onto the field and into the quarterfinals.
There was celebration last night for sure, but one theme kept coming up and remained with the players and coaches on the field long after Blake stuffed the final PK: these Huskies aren’t done.
The road to Philly has taken this team to Baltimore, to Los Angeles, and now to Charlottesville, Virginia for a date with UVA Friday night at 7pm EST. There will be no victory hangover for this UConn team. They’re on a mission, and they’re now only one win away from Philly and the College Cup.