STORRS—UConn senior winger Liana Hinds says this year's squad is the best she has been part of in Storrs, even if it means fewer minutes for her.
Hinds started 37 games in her first three years with the Huskies. She has always produced for UConn, and her play earned her significant play time with the Trinidad and Tobago U-20 women's national team at the 2014 CONCACAF Women's U-20 Championship.
But with so much depth on the wings this season, Hinds has only made two starts. She continues to produce, however, scoring a brilliant goal in the No. 20 Huskies' 3-0 win over Army Friday at Morrone Stadium.
UConn coach Len Tsantiris used six substitutes—including Hinds—before the game was out of reach Friday. The six subs, who all played in attacking or midfield roles, averaged 30.8 minutes each. Several of the players coming off the bench have had starting roles in the past, and most players have had their minutes slashed with the number of substitutes.
Tsantiris is thrilled when he looks at his squad this season. Friday's starting lineup featured three freshmen – two of them on defense. He could make a starting lineup out of his bench. He is living a coach's dream.
And for a coaching legend looking to get his team back to the level it once was—a national championship contender every year—this is an exciting time for Tsantiris.
"You have to (have depth). You have to," Tsantiris said. "This is why we're 6-0 right now, because we have the stamina and we can change people. We don't burn out players. We have that luxury to put in players and we don't lose anything."
With typically three players to choose from on the right wing—Hinds, freshman Kim Urbanek and senior Sam McGuire—at least one is bound to have a solid performance every game. They all produced chances Friday night.
Hinds was the one to break through and double UConn's lead with 10 minutes to play. She took the ball down the wing, cut into the box, beat two defenders and buried a shot past Army goalkeeper Jordan Cassalia. Not a bad piece of production from the bench.
"I'm just kind of happy the people going in are doing well, and the people who are on the sideline are cheering them on, Hinds said. "I'm just happy everyone's involved and being supportive or doing their job when they go in. It's all about working hard when you get in."
Four minutes after Hinds' goal, sophomore striker Tanya Altrui, who played 33 minutes up top in place of Rachel Hill, made it 3-0 for UConn. Altrui got on the end of a bouncing ball off a corner kick, and the only player she had to beat to the ball was UConn defender Sabrina Toole, who was also looking for the shot.
Tsantiris has alluded to Altrui's quality up top several times this season. The sophomore finally notched her second career goal, her first since Sept. 7, 2014, showing Tsantiris can easily turn to her to take pressure off Hill, one of the best strikers in the nation.
"Her work rate is unreal," said Hill, who notched her sixth goal of the season Friday. "She just works as hard as she can. She never stops. Her footwork is really good, as well."
Having all that depth is great for UConn, but it also helps to have Hill scoring at a rate of one goal per game to open the season.
Hill made scoring look effortless in the 15th minute Friday, rounding Cassalia outside the box and passing the ball into the net from 25 yards out. The junior now has 35 goals in her career, and if she continues at her current rate this season, she will start to pressure the program's all-time record of 63 career goals.
Tsantiris loves all his players. He cannot praise his team enough this season. But it helps having players like Hill.
"When I have another 10 Rachels I'll win the national championship," Tsantiris said. "I will sit on the bench. I won't even move."
Of course, winning a national championship is still the goal, and the Huskies have the depth and talent to challenge the powers that be from the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC.
Part of the reason for that is the impressive showing of UConn's defense to this point. Without two senior captains—goalkeeper Allison Saucier and right back Megan Hunsberger—the pressure has been on the back line. Junior goalkeeper Emily Armstrong, who splits time with Saucier when both are healthy, has handled herself marvelously in net this season.
Saucier is ready to go, Tsantiris said, but he did not want to put her in with a 1-0 lead, and the second half goals came too late to get her in. Her time is coming, though.
"What are you going to put her for – five, six minutes? No, she deserves to play more," Tsantiris said. "We hope that she's going to get in there."
But the success of the defense in front of Armstrong has boiled down to the success of freshmen Heidi Druehl and Liane Keegans. UConn has only allowed five goals this season – one since Hunsberger's injury midway through the first half against Syracuse. In the second half of Friday's win, Army did not attempt a shot. While Tsantiris will rotate his attacking players, he does not want to mess with a solid defensive unit.
"You can't change in the defense because they're in the game, they understand the tendencies of the other team," Tsantiris said. "You throw somebody new in there, she has to adjust, and you hope nothing is going to happen while they're adjusting.
"Defense is like the goalkeeper. You'd like to change the goalkeeper, but it's tough to just throw somebody into the game."
When Hunsberger is back—likely Sunday when the Huskies travel to No. 19 Rutgers—Druehl will likely go back to the bench. That means Tsantiris will have at least 18 players with significant game experience this season who he can turn to.
As the Huskies head on the road for five games, and as they prepare to open conference play with the target of a champion on their backs, that depth is an incredible asset to have.
"It's good to know once Megan gets back, we have a deep bench," Armstrong said. "The players come off the bench make a big impact, which is really important this year. I think that's helping us keep us undefeated this year."