Fresh off a dramatic NCAA Tournament win over regional rival Rhode Island on Thursday, the UConn men’s soccer team has a quick turnaround as it heads to Bloomington to play No. 2 Indiana tomorrow at 12 p.m ET.
The Huskies and Hoosiers met once earlier this season, with Indiana walking away with a 1-0 win. Indiana boasts a lengthy soccer pedigree, with eight national championships and is a perennial high seed in the NCAA tournament. Last year, they were the runner-up to Stanford in the NCAA final, losing on an own goal. The Huskies, however, are a soccer blue-blood in their own right, with head coach Ray Reid gunning for his 300th win at UConn.
“They’re a different beast, Indiana. We have to be smart Sunday,” head coach Ray Reid said. “I watched them play Friday when they beat Maryland in penalty kicks. They're an interesting team. We’ll give it our best shot. They lost in the national championship on an own goal last year. They have some national team players. But at the end of the day, we can try to beat them, or Rhode Island can try to beat them. We’re going to try to beat them.”
The Hoosiers are 17-2-1 on the year, with their only losses coming against Wake Forest and Kentucky, while winning both the Big Ten regular season championship and Big Ten Tournament championship. Andrew Gutman leads the Hoosiers with 10 goals, while Trevor Swartz paces them with 10 assists.
But enough about Indiana. After UConn’s comeback win against URI, Reid sang the praises of his squad, which now boasts nine games with goals in the 75th minute or later:
“I’ve been doing this for 29 years. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. These guys, you can’t count them out. They tax us (the coaching staff), they test us, they have their moods, but they’re resilient and driven and have good character. They just want to keep playing. They’re fun to be around. They care about each other. They like being around each other. A lot of teams say they do, but you can really tell with them.”
Reid was effusive in his praise of freshman goalkeeper Gianluca Catalano, despite the three goals conceded against URI.
“On the first goal, he was fouled. But overall he made some big saves. Putting a freshman in that situation is not easy. He’s going to join Andre Blake and Bryheem Hancock as one of the greatest goalies to play here.”
Reid also noted freshman Ibrahima Diop, who scored the iconic hat trick against Rhode Island, was playing out of position on the wing for most of the season. As time dwindled and the Huskies needed to score, Reid put him up top at his natural position, and the goals flowed. Diop only scored one goal in the regular season, but kept a cool head throughout his drought.
“Sometimes, that’s how the game is. But I just keep playing try not to get frustrated, and know my chance will come. Today was my day and I’m happy for me and my team,” he said.
On his game winner: “I told him (Mbacke Thiam) at halftime, every time you cut in, I’m open on the back post. So when he played that really good ball, I saw it coming. For the seniors, I was feeling angry because I didn’t want it to end today.”
Talisman Abdou Mbacke Thiam always had the freshman’s back, despite dropping a somewhat confusing analogy.
“I’m so happy for him. He’ll be here for the next three years, so I want him to have confidence. When I leave, someone has to fill the shoes,” Mbacke Thiam said. “That’s why I’m so happy when him or Dayonn [Harris] or Cole [Venner] get involved. It helps me, because other teams have to focus on them now. It’s tough to play 18 games and only have 1 goal, so I just kept telling him they were going to come. I told him, goals are like ketchup; when they come, they’re going to really come.”
And now seems like an apt time to sing the praises of UConn’s star striker. Reid says Mbacke Thiam is “built different,” and its hard to argue. His 15 goals this year brings his tally to 46 on his storied UConn career, good for tied for fourth all-time at UConn. But he’s not just a poacher; his seven assists are tied for the team lead in 2018, and he’s tied for sixth all-time at UConn in points with 110. And it was his beautifully floated ball that set up Diop’s game winner on Thursday.
Mbacke Thiam has confidence in his team’s ability to come back.
“I looked up, saw that we had 30 minutes left, and was like, oh, we’re fine. We can score three goals easily,” he said. “We never give up. Even if we’re down by two or three goals. They scored two goals in five minutes, and we’re like, okay, we know what to do. That makes it easy. We learn from the mistakes.”
Sunday’s match against the Hoosiers is scheduled will be televised live nationally on the Big Ten Network. A live stream of the match can be found at BTN2Go.com for free.