The UConn women’s soccer team kicks off their season on Friday, Aug. 17 at Northeastern. The Huskies are coming off a tough 7-9-3 year that also marked the final season of head coach Len Tsantiris’ career.
Now, longtime assistant and former player Margaret Rodriguez (Tietjen) — called Mags by her team — is in charge and the team is looking to once again become a consistent presence in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s tough to predict how the season will go for the Huskies. The team had some bad losses last season and they’ll be relying on players to make a jump this season. Rodriguez also needs to change the culture within the program and it is yet to be seen if that can happen in one year. However, the early returns from camp are good.
“We’ve got a great group, the best I’ve had here. It’s going to be a really good year,” senior Emily Costanzo said. “Everyone’s working really hard. It’s not so much really that we’re working for ourselves but working for each other.”
UConn also has a lot to replace from last season. Goalkeeper Courtney Hofer and defensive midfielder Sabrina Toole graduated while starting center back Paige Liebel transferred. The Huskies also lost Vivien Beil and Kess Elmore — their two leading scorers from a season ago — to injury. Neither will return this season.
“Those were a big loss for us but a big gain for next year,” Rodriguez said. “Knowing it prior to the season was probably the best thing for us.”
Rodriguez said the team will likely use 17-18 players — 11 starters with six or seven substitutes available.
Even without Beil and Elmore, the Huskies have a strong stable of attacking players to dip into. Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky had a quiet freshman year but exploded with five goals through two preseason games. The talent was always there for her but she needed to figure out the mental side of the game over the offseason.
“I can go on for hours about what changed,” Danyko-Kulchycky said. “I’m a completely different player than who I was last fall last spring mentally. That’s the main thing Mags told me after the spring and I really took that to heart.”
Fellow sophomores Yamilee Eveillard and Zoe Steck will also be relied upon. The two players had inverse seasons as Steck started strong but faded as the year went on while Eveillard missed early games due to injury but was a force by the end of the season.
They will fill out a rotation that also features Swedish freshman Pato Jerzak — who has routinely earned praise from Rodriguez — and freshman Izzy Lynch.
Junior Erin Spillane will likely fill the role of attacking midfielder with Reagan Schiappa and Elena Santos also featuring up top.
However, none of the players are locked into formal positions. They’ll all be rotated around to keep each other fresh and give defenses different looks.
“The beauty of our attacking players is they’re all interchangeable,” Rodriguez said. “We have three forwards and two attacking mids and all of them can play all those positions. I love creativity up top, if we get stagnant and just play our positions, we’re not going to find our success out there and they know that.”
The midfield has been a weak spot on the Huskies in recent years. Those gaps were really exposed last season as UConn often struggled to maintain possession against some of the better teams on their schedule.
The good news is most of last year’s players are back with an extra year of experience under their belt.
The position will be anchored by Melina Couzis, who is expected to be the team’s defensive midfielder and the vocal leader on the team.
“Melina Couzis is our brain on the field and she’s stepping up and taking that role,” Rodriguez said. “I think the last few years we lacked that leadership on the field and Mel is filling that role for us.”
Senior Kim Urbanek is the most experienced midfielder with 60 appearances (24 starts) over her first three seasons. Junior Sofia Leone was also saw plenty of time in the midfield last season and appears to have made a jump entering her third season in Storrs.
“I love playing with Sofia in the midfield,” Couzis said. “She listens to what you have to say and she knows where she has to be.”
Juniors Alexa Casimiro and Alana Moore and Costanzo, a senior, will all see minutes as well.
There aren’t many questions when it comes to UConn’s back line this season. Seniors Liane Keegans and Heidi Druehl return as the “backbone of the team,” according to Rodriguez. Keegans is a tenacious centerback with speed while Druehl brings some offense up the wing out of the back.
The Huskies also brought in centerback Aline Christien from Switzerland. Rodriguez said the freshman has the talent to play immediately but struggled to adapt to the system early in camp.
“I think the biggest challenge for her was the language and understanding how we’re going to play and getting comfortable with players around us,” the coach said. “But she’s done well with that transition.”
Waterford, Connecticut native Rachel Marchini redshirted her freshman season but has seen minutes through the first two preseason games. Couzis and Moore also have experience at outside back, but Rodriguez doesn’t want to switch her back four too often.
“You don’t really change those players that much because you have to get those players in sync together,” she said. “We won’t be looking to change much in the back.”
Redshirt sophomore Randi Palacios was named the starter for the beginning of the season by Rodriguez but she’ll be in a constant competition with Mollie Kerrigan — who started during the non-conference schedule last season due to an injury to Hofer.
“They’re always going to compete for that starting job but I think Randi pretty much has the job right now,” Rodriguez said. “Randi has definitely shown us qualities. We can play through her, she can play us out of the back which we like about her but Mollie definitely gives us another look in some areas. I think she’s good in crosses.”
Palacios has been injured most of her first two seasons but finally got on the field this spring and impressed the coaching staff. Last season, Kerrigan struggled in the starting role, although the defense didn’t help her much at times.
Freshman Kesley Kohler was expected to compete for the starting job but went down with an injury and will likely redshirt.
UConn certainly has the talent to compete for the American Athletic Conference regular season title and not only earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but win a few games in it. But in order to do so, they will need to buy into Rodriguez’s style of play and philosophy while also turning their young talent into production on the field.
Record: 14-3-2, AAC Tournament Champions, second round of NCAA Tournament
Leading Scorer: Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky
MVP: Melina Couzis
Bold Prediction: Rodriguez wins The American Coach of the Year