The wait is over. The UConn men’s soccer team kicks off their season tomorrow, Aug. 24 with a home game against Lehigh at Morrone Stadium at 7 p.m.
After a 2017 season that saw Ray Reid’s men go 8-8-2 on the campaign and miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, 2018 will be a redemption tour of sorts for a program used to profound success. Let’s not forget that prior to the last two seasons, Reid had guided UConn men’s soccer program to 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Last year was Reid’s first season at .500 in his 22 year career at UConn. When asked about last year, Reid noted, “We just weren’t good enough. We were young, and we fell on our faces down the stretch a little bit. It’s a new year, and we have some good players, and the leadership of our returning guys is good.”
Charged with reclaiming their rightful place atop the American Athletic Conference will be the three tri-captains Abdou Mbacke Thiam, Dylan Greenberg and Jacob Hauser-Ramsey, as well as 13 newcomers to the squad.
“It’s a good bunch of guys,” said Reid. “We’re excited, and working pretty hard (this preseason). The older guys have shown some good maturity and leadership. It’s a good balance and good mix.”
Greenberg echoed his coach, commenting “We have a lot of depth. Everyone can play. The mentality this year is by far the best out of my five years this preseason, going into the year. Me, Abdou, and Jay are trying finish off our careers strong.”
Greenberg also noted how this was the best preseason mentality from a team he’s seen in his five years at UConn.
“We learned from our mistakes each and every year,” he noted. “We brought in more mature guys that can come in off the bench. Everyone can play. Like Coach Reid said, we need to have the mentality and urgency every single game, whether practice or games. In my five years, this is the best team we’ve had. Besides athleticism, we have a lot of talent.”
Let’s breakdown the roster.
It all starts with one of the tri-captains in Mbacke Thiam, the team’s three-time goals leader. He will look to add to his tally of 31 goals in a storied UConn career, four shy of landing in the top 10 of the Huskies all-time scorers. He will need some support from his fellow strikers to help UConn improve on its nine conference goals per game, good for fourth in the AAC.
That help could come from redshirt junior Dayonn Harris, sophomore Austin DaSilva, redshirt sophomore Alex Canicatti and freshman Ibrahima Diop. Diop got himself acclimated quickly this year already, netting a hat trick in the exhibition against Colgate on Aug. 13, and earning praise from Reid at media day.
DaSilva bagged two of his own last year to go with three assists. Harris, a transfer from Penn State, returns after sitting out nearly all of last year with an injury. He scored three goals in two years prior with the Nittany Lions.
UPDATE: DaSilva has left the team.
Junior Munir Saleh, sophomores Blaise N’Gague and Josh Burnett, and freshman Steffen Yeates will anchor a unit that features a potent mix of dynamic link-up play, as well as defensive prowess and organization.
N’Gague and Burnett are fresh off All-Rookie Honors after combining for three goals and three assists last year. Yeates, as mentioned in our introduction of the young lads, has featured for Toronto F.C. II and the Canadian U-17 National Team. Guiding a young midfield will be Saleh, who has appeared in all but one game in his career, including 24 starts.
Rounding out the middle will be redshirt freshman Cole Venner, looking to build off a strong preseason. Redshirt sophomore George Kutrubis will feature as well, to go along with newcomers Alex Patz, Arthur Silva, Keith Dixon and Cristian Suvak.
The backline will once again be a calling card for the Huskies. There lies Greenberg and Hauser-Ramsey, to go with redshirt junior Nkosi Burgess, freshman Felix Metzler and transfer Robin Lapert.
Hauser-Ramsey was named the AAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, as well as First-Team All-Conference. He stabilized a unit that allowed just a 0.96 goals against average and nabbed eight shutouts for the season.
On the flanks will be the reliable presence of Greenberg, a marauding fullback coming off a four-point campaign in 2017 that earned him a Second-Team All-Conference selection.
“Our defensive role looks strong in preseason,” said Greenberg. “The younger guys will learn from me and Jacob. We talk to them off the field; what they need to work on, how they should play. It’s super competitive every day. The defense looks strong this year. We have to stay focused, watch the video, and lessen the mistakes.”
Burgess is an absolute unit at 6-4 and will pair with Hauser-Ramsey up the spine.
Among the newcomers, Felix Metzer started in both exhibition games, and should factor in immediately. He’ll be joined by the sophomore Lapert, a transfer from the University of Charleston, who logged a full 90 against Syracuse last Saturday.
Depth on the backline is critical, and the Huskies will be bolstered by redshirt sophomore Frantz Innocent, Jr., sophomore Nick DeMaso, as well as freshmen Ryan Greenberg, Connor Fitzgerald and Sean Martin, Jr. All four of the freshman defenders hail from the Nutmeg State.
Last but not least, we have the goalkeepers. Scott Levene will be missed while he plies his trade down the interstate for the New York Red Bulls II. The spot is up for grabs, and exhibition games saw minutes split evenly down the line between redshirt junior Austin Aviza and freshman Gianluca Catalano. Aviza was Levene’s backup last year after spending two years at Syracuse, while Catalano was a teammate of Yeates at Toronto F.C. II. Rounding out the four-man group is redshirt sophomore Alex Bottazzi and freshman Shane Keenan.
Despite the daunting schedule, the well-balanced squad seems excited for the challenge. Noted Greenberg, “I love that. I love playing experienced teams that have made it to Final Fours and are in the top 25. I love the competitiveness of it. I live for it. Everyone here does.”
And let’s not forget the 12th man. The Goal Patrol will be out in full force in 2018, as they always are. This year, Morrone will look to build on its average home attendance of 3,502, the highest mark in the country.
Record: 12-5-2, AAC Championship, NCAA Elite 8
Leading Scorer: Mbacke Thiam
MVP: Jacob Hauser-Ramsey
Hot Take: The Huskies lose a heartbreaker in the AAC final, but regroup to charge through the NCAA.