A new era is underway for the UConn Huskies women’s soccer team. Gone is the senior class that helped revive the program to its status as one of the best in the country.
Now, the team has been turned over to a new, younger wave of players.
The year’s edition of the Huskies feature 21 underclassmen, outnumbering the juniors and seniors by 10. Having such a strong young core will certainly makes the future bright but at a program like UConn, rebuilding is no option. The youngsters must step up, and need to do so quickly.
“We definitely have talent but we don’t have a lot of experience,” said head coach Len Tsantiris. “That’s something that’s going to get there, I just don’t know how soon.”
If Monday’s season opener was any indication, it’s going to come sooner rather than later.
“Against Syracuse, we played hard and the better thing is we went down without much time to go and we [came back to] tie the game, and we could’ve won after that,” Tsantiris said. “So the reaction was good and playing away from home with the young kids was a good sign.”
That game-tying goal came from the foot of Zoe Steck, a freshman from Nutley, NJ. She is one of the Huskies’ top options up top as the team looks to replace the production of Stephanie Ribeiro and Rachel Hill.
“Zoe is really good in the air and is able to control the ball when there’s multiple defenders around her,” said senior Tanya Altrui.
Despite the positive early returns on Steck, don’t expect to see her out there for the full 90 minutes.
“She’s not fit yet,” Tsantiris said. “She’s a good player, she can score goals but we can only use her for little periods of time because she’s not fit to go.”
Luckily, Steck isn’t expected to completely replace Hill and Ribeiro. There’s no player can do that, especially not a freshman. Instead, it will be a collective effort.
“I feel like this year we’ll have goals coming from all over the field,” said sophomore midfielder Alexa Casimiro. “We’ve got so many potential scorers this year. We’re not just relying on one or two forwards, it’s coming from everywhere.”
That lack of star power could be an advantage for the Huskies. Last year, shutting down Hill and Ribeiro meant shutting down UConn’s entire offensive attack. Now there’s no one player opposing teams can key in on, leaving a vast array of options to crash the net.
The offensive attack will be aided by a strong midfield that is as deep as it is versatile. Maine transfer Vivien Beil leads the charge in the midfield, while junior Kim Urbanek and Sabrina Toole fill out the rest of the central midfield, the unit responsible for bringing the ball up and stopping counter-attacks.
On the flank, Altrui, Alexa Casimiro, Danielle Gottwik and Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky will likely see the bulk of the action. However, there are a handful of more players that will get into the mix, a nod to the depth which the Huskies possess.
“We have a lot of players that can start the game and a lot of different player combinations that can work together to find the best unit,” said Altrui.
“We have so many girls that are good at different things, so when our subs come in, there’s no drop-off at all,” Toole echoed. “We can start pretty much any of our subs and there would be no difference at all.”
Since playing in the midfield requires more running, it makes sense to use more substitutes there. However, in the defensive line, continuity is important so that players can build trust and chemistry together.
The Huskies return three of their four starters from last season on the back line, including the tenacious Liane Keegans.
“Keegs is a great leader back there and I have full faith and trust in her so when I play center mid, I know I can go as far as I can to that ball and she’ll always have my back,” said Toole.
They also added Fairfield transfer Elena Santos along with freshman Melina Couzis, a player that has already impressed the staff with her maturity.
“Melina is a good solid player,” said Tsantiris. “She came in fit and she works really hard.”
Unlike years past, the defense won’t have the safety net of Emily Armstrong, a four-year starter and two-time AAC Goalkeeper of the Year. They have yet to find her replacement as projected starter Courtney Hofer is out with an injury, giving redshirt sophomore Mollie Kerrigan the job to start the season. Tsantiris praised both players, but didn’t commit to either as the starter once Hofer returns.
“[Mollie] did well. She has done very well so far,” he said. “[Courtney]’s good, she’s a good leader, she talks well and she’s a good goalkeeper but we’ve got to see.”
Whichever player ends up in goal doesn’t change the ultimate goal of the defense, though.
“We all have the same mentality as we had with Emily and it’s don’t let anyone shoot,” said Toole. “We try to make her job as easy as possible.”
For all the losses the team suffered from graduation, the team is still set up to compete this season. The biggest question is whether or not they’ll be able to find the net consistently. If they can’t, it’s going to be a long season for the Huskies.
But if they do, not only should they be competing for the American Conference Championship, their talent would give them a shot to make some serious noise in the NCAA Tournament.