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UConn Men's Soccer Preview: The Hunted Become Hunters as Huskies Look to Bounce Back

After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years, UConn is the favorite in the American Athletic Conference as the Huskies look to strong leadership and talented newcomers to get back on top.

UConn junior co-captain Kwame Awuah puts in a cross at Tuesday's training session. Awuah was named to the preseason all-conference team in the American.
UConn junior co-captain Kwame Awuah puts in a cross at Tuesday's training session. Awuah was named to the preseason all-conference team in the American.

The 2014 season is a thing of the past for the UConn men's soccer team. After finishing 10-6-3 and missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997, the Huskies are looking ahead to what should be a redeeming season in 2015.

After losing the likes of Cyle Larin, Adria Beso Marco and Sergio Campbell, UConn is not being looked at in the usual way in the preseason. Regularly a top-15 program in the preseason polls, the Huskies enter this season outside the NSCAA Top 25, finishing 29th in the initial voting.

"We're acting like we're doing the hunting," junior co-captain Jake Nerwinski said. "We're not the team to beat. We need to go out and prove that we are a top contender in the country this year."

Junior co-captain Kwame Awuah said the Huskies started to figure things out late in 2014. After a 2-5-1 start, the Huskies finished 8-1-2, going 6-1-1 in the American before falling in the conference semifinals.

This year, Awuah said, there can be no excuses. The Huskies have what it takes to get hot early and stay hot.

"No one's scared of us," Awuah said. "We have to make them scared of us."

American Athletic Conference Outlook

Despite last season's struggles, the Huskies managed to win the regular season title in the American. They are the preseason favorite to win the conference this year.

2014 Record (Conference Record) Points in Poll
1) UConn (2) 10-6-3 (6-1-1) 44
2) Tulsa (3) 11-6-3 (5-2-1) 43
3) USF (3) 10-7-3 (4-3-1) 41
4) SMU 10-6-2 (4-2-2) 31
5) Memphis 9-7-2 (3-4-1) 23
6) UCF 2-10-6 (1-3-4) 20
7) Cincinnati 5-10-3 (2-5-1) 14
8) Temple 2-14-2 (1-6-1) 8

The conference game to watch will be Oct. 31, when UConn hosts USF in its regular season finale. UConn and USF could be vying for the top spot in the American ahead of the conference tournament, which will conclude in Tampa, Florida this year. The Bulls have knocked the Huskies out of the tournament the last two seasons, both times on penalty kicks.

Nerwinski Returns from U.S. National Team Showcase

Nerwinski, a unanimous preseason all-conference selection, went to California in early August to train with the United States Under-23 National Team for its College Identification Camp. The UConn right back was one of 28 college players called in by coach Andi Herzog, as the U.S. men's U-23 program prepares for Olympic qualifying.

The U-23s ended camp with a 3-1 win against the segunda premier team of Mexican side club Tijuana. Nerwinski played about 40 minutes in the match, and he left feeling good about the way he played.

"It was a good experience overall, really. It was good to play with top-level guys," Nerwinski said. "Going into it, I was a little nervous, but once you play, you get out there, start running around, I felt that I belonged out there, and it was a good feeling. You just have to play fast. The speed is just crazy."

Experienced Defense

Ray Reid calls Nerwinski one of the Huskies' best leaders in 17 years. If UConn is going to improve in 2015, he will need to lead a young back line that is loaded with talent.

Dylan Greenberg, the Huskies' left back, and center back Elliot Ackroyd earned All-AAC Freshman Team honors in 2014, along with midfielder Cheikh Stephane Coly. The Huskies will replace Campbell with Norwegian center back Simen Olafsen, who was named to Top Drawer Soccer's preseason all-freshman team Monday.

Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Scott Levene has plenty to be excited about with his back line. Levene earned the starting job midway through the 2014 season and allowed only six goals in 11 matches. In the Huskies' 2-1 exhibition win over Rider Sunday, UConn's first-team squad played the opening 45 minutes. The defense did not allow a goal, and Levene was only challenged once.

"I think the fact that we're returning three of our four is massive, absolutely massive," Levene said. "The chemistry is going to be there, and I think Simen is going to blend in in no time. He already has."

Reid hailed both Greenberg and Olafsen as strong team leaders on the back line. Greenberg was one of the standout players for the Huskies in 2014, and he is setting his sights higher in 2015, both for himself and the team.

"I'm blessed. I have incredible players. I have incredible coaches," Greenberg said. "I'm honored to be on this top team in the country. I have a great coaching staff, and I'm honored no matter what, even if I don't get an award. But I'm going to work my butt off and hopefully get an even higher award."

Awuah Has No. 1 Pick Potential

Junior captain Kwame Awuah is one of the players to watch in Storrs this season. After playing as a right back his freshman year, the Canadian speedster moved into the midfield, where he is able to use more of the field. Awuah has the ability to dribble through multiple defenders and get open heading to goal.

This talent produced one of the goals of the season in 2014.

A preseason all-conference selection along with Nerwinski and Coly, Awuah played all over the place for Sigma FC in Canada, so the position change last season was fine with him.

"Coach Reid puts me anywhere he thinks I can do maximum damage, so I have no problem," Awuah said. "Being versatile only helps for the next level. The more positions you can play, the better chance you have."

Reid said Awuah leads with his talent, and that talent can take Awuah as far as he lets it. That could mean extending UConn's run of No. 1 picks in the MLS SuperDraft.

"If he plays like he can play, he will be the top pick in (the MLS SuperDraft)," Reid said. "The question is can he do it six days a week for four months? We're going to see."

Chemistry Strong, Even With Slew of International Additions

UConn always travels the world looking for the best players, and the international flavor is clearly visible with this year's squad. Sunday's lineup against Rider, shown below, is expected to be what the Huskies deploy during the regular season. UConn only started three Americans Sunday.

GK: Scott Levene, United States

DEF: Dylan Greenberg, United States; Elliot Ackroyd, England; Simen Olafsen, Norway; Jake Nerwinski, United States

MID: Kwame Awuah, Canada; Sebastian Brems, Denmark; Cheikh Stephane Coly, Senegal; Abdou Thiam, Senegal; Moustapha Samb, Senegal

FWD: Fredrik Jonsson, Sweden

All five newcomers to the UConn lineup—Olafsen, Brems, Thiam, Samb and Jonsson—come from other countries. The Huskies also added a new goalkeeper, Alejandro Cubillo, a Spanish goalkeeper who played in the youth system with La Liga club Rayo Vallecano. In total, eight countries are represented on the Huskies.

That can prove challenging, but Greenberg thinks the coaching staff has done a good job of finding the right players.

"It doesn't matter, because they get us into a good environment, a good staff, a good school environment," Greenberg said. "It just brings the team together. It doesn't matter about foreigners or different nationalities, it doesn't matter, because we're a family, and the structure that we have makes a team, and I'm really excited for this year."

Brems, a junior transfer from Southern Connecticut, and Jonsson joined the Huskies in the spring, competing in UConn's five-game spring season. In a sport with as much turnover as college soccer, this was a big boost for the Huskies, and it showed Sunday. Brems and Jonsson looked comfortable with their new teammates.

Both on and off the field, several UConn players feel different about the team's chemistry this year. They say it is far better than last year.

"We've already established a connection, so on the field, it makes it simpler," Awuah said. "Off the field, we're all friends. Everyone talks to each other. No more cliques, so that's the big thing. Everything is united. We do everything together. We win as a team, we lose as a team, we play as a team. Everyone has the same idea of how we want to play, and we just have to demonstrate it every game."