The UConn men’s soccer team kicks off its 2019 campaign against Rider tonight, 7 p.m. at Al-Marzook Field on the campus of the University of Hartford. We’ve talked about the past. We’ve talked about the future. Now, let’s shift to the present with the 2019 season preview.
But first, indulge a history nerd for a moment. If you were to describe the UConn men’s soccer team 2018 campaign by a political slogan, it would probably be Warren Harding’s ‘A Return to Normalcy.’ After an NCAA tournament drought in 2016 and 2017, the 2018 Huskies returned to the Big Dance in dramatic fashion with a thrilling overtime victory against regional rival Rhode Island.
Perhaps 2019’s campaign should go with Barack Obama’s 2008 slogan, ‘Change.’ Gone is talisman Abdou Mbacke Thiam, who now plays for Louisville City in the USL Championship. Also gone are backline stalwarts Jacob Hauser-Ramsey and Dylan Greenberg. Those three players brought everything expected of the captains armband; leadership, stability, and results. Even beloved Morrone Stadium is gone, with Al-Marzook Field and Dillon Stadium serving as place-holders until the new shiny digs are completed.
But last year’s departures are in the past, and there’s no time like the present. The Huskies were picked to finish third in the American, with several players garnering preseason awards. Head Coach Ray Reid — who boasts the second-highest winning percentage (.742) among active coaches — deftly reloaded his roster, bringing in an exciting combination of talented freshman and impact transfers. Add that to the core of returning players led by tri-captains Dayonn Harris, Felix Metzler, and Robin Lapert, there’s no reason to believe UConn soccer will take a step back in 2019. Let’s breakdown the roster.
Mbacke Thiam is gone, and so are his 14 goals and seven assists. Tasked with replacing those points will be sophomore Ibrahima Diop and Rutgers transfer Jordan Hall — both of which can play out wide while also serving as target men.
That interchangeability is a nice feature to have when dictating the tempo of a game. Diop was third on the team in points last year with nine — including a hatrick in the NCAA tournament win over URI — while Hall comes from Brunswick fresh off a 14 goal campaign and First Team All-Big Ten honors.
Look for freshman Moussa Wade, another Senegalese talent for the Huskies, who featured heavily in the team’s two preseason games, to sit underneath whatever striker is up top. Flanking Wade will be the ever-reliable redshirt senior Dayonn Harris who was second on the team in points last year with five goals and seven assists. A preseason all-conference selection, the speedy Harris made a name for himself last year with his incisive runs and crosses that had a knack for finding Mbacke Thiam.
One of Diop or Hall will likely be the other winger, while freshmen Jayden Reid and Wesley Leggett also flashed in preseason and could be in the mix as well. Redshirt sophomore Cole Venner will get a chance to run at defenses as well. Although he only started one game last year, he still logged two goals and three assists on the season and projects to be UConn’s top offensive option off the bench.
Sitting at defensive center-mid is junior Blaise N’Gague, who cleaned things up nicely, was a physical presence in the middle of the park, and combined when needed. N’Gague is a great wall for sophomore and AAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Felix Metzler, whose calm distribution helped the Huskies win many a possession battle last year.
UConn struggled at times last year converting that possession into chances though, and this will be something to watch this year.
Junior tri-captain Robin Lapert is the staple and Loyola transfer Jake Dengler looks to be a copy-and-paste replacement to Jacob Hauser-Ramsey in the middle. Metzler could also come back and pair up in a pinch and often drops back into being a third centerback. Louisville transfer Ziyad Fehkri spent most of preseason at left back while junior Alex Patz fits the mold of a Ray Reid wing-back to a t. Between the posts, it looks like its sophomore Gianluca Catalano’s spot to lose. ‘Gigi’ started six games last year — including every game in the postseason.
All-in-all, what stands out about this squad is the versatility; Reid has a lot he can tinker with. There are multiple options up top, ranging from one target-man and a pivot beneath him, to the ability to go with the traditional two forwards and marauding wing play. Metzler can play virtually anywhere in the middle, and the entire backline has the fluidity to handle an array of threats.
That’s good, because the American Athletic Conference will once again prove to be no slouch. For the second-straight year, the American will begin its season with at least three teams ranked or receiving votes in the United Soccer Coaches poll. UCF earns its highest billing ever to begin a season at No. 15, with UConn and SMU both receiving votes.
It certainly looks like a three-way fight for the league. Central Florida has preseason Offensive Player of the Year and Hermann Candidate Cal Jennings back to smash more records after ranking second nationally in both goals (20) and points (45), both single-season conference records.
Record: Last year I predicted UConn go 12-5-2, reach the AAC Championship, and then storm to the NCAA Elite 8. Not far off, but perhaps a wee bit optimistic.
I’ve learned from my overzealous past, and predict UConn to go 11-4-2 on the year. I still think the road to the AAC goes through Cal Jennings and UCF, but UConn will reach the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second-straight year.
Leading Scorer: Jordan Hall
MVP: Felix Metzler
Hot Take: Jordan Hall and Cal Jennings have a hotly-contested race for AAC leading goal scorer.
Details about the Rider game can be found below:
Home Opener this Friday— UConn Men's Soccer (@UConnMSOC) August 27, 2019
$1 Groups (10+)
UConn students can get into the game free of charge by just swiping their student ID. No ticket required.
Free parking for fans is available in Lot M located next to the stadium. pic.twitter.com/MifNiMzUI1