Few things went right for UConn women’s soccer in Margaret Rodriguez’s first season as head coach. After a slew of injuries hit before the year even began, the team struggled to gel on the field as the Huskies were seemingly constantly stuck going one step forward, two steps back. Positives were often washed out with an avalanche of negatives and by the time Rodriguez felt the team was getting on the right track, the season ended.
Now in year two of the Rodriguez Era, UConn is looking to get back to being not just competitive but winning games again. Everything about this season feels like a transition year, from the fact that the team doesn’t have a true home stadium to the number of underclassmen starting through the first three games.
Through those three games, the Huskies are 1-1-1. It’s already a step-up from last season, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
One of the biggest weaknesses for the Huskies last year was in net, where both Randi Palacios and Mollie Kerrigan struggled stopping shots and organizing the field in front of them. Rodriguez wasn’t afraid to use a quick hook on either, sitting Palacios prior to the USF game for allowing too many soft goals before pulling Kerrigan mid-game against UCF after she allowed two goals in the first 16 minutes.
However, it appears those troubles are behind UConn now. Not only is highly-regarded redshirt freshmen Kelsey Kohler back after missing all of last season with a leg injury (though she did miss the start of the season with a minor back ailment), Palacios has improved significantly from a year ago as well.
“(Randi took a) huge leap,” Rodriguez said. “Last year, she’s coming in being out for two years so she needed the game experience and she needed a little relief and confidence in herself and ultimately she needed a coach that would believe in her and work with her.”
The Huskies have only allowed two goals in the run of play in three games this season, including a shutout against Fairfield — and none of them have been soft, unlike last year. With the goalkeeping situation shored up, that sets a strong foundation for the rest of the team.
The backline is undergoing a full-on youth movement and the early returns are positive. Of the five defenders (four backs and a defensive mid), two are freshman and three are sophomores. And it’s a unique set of players as well.
The starting left centerback is 5-foot-2 Kara Long. The right back? That would be converted forward Pato Jerzak, who now flies up the sideline to send in crosses as a wingback. At first glance, it’s unconventional. But then you actually watch her play and it all makes sense.
“All year last year was trying to find a home for her,” Rodriguez said. “She’s a very good player I just couldn’t figure out where I could play her. She’s a wide player and in the spring I converted her early on just to try her at right back because she’s really good attacking wide and she has quickly adapted to it and she likes the position...Defensively, she’s fine. In the attack, I needed to find her a better spot on the field and we found her home.”
Redshirt sophomore Rachel Marchini along with freshmen Jackie Harnett and Emma Zaccagnini are the other starters. After a lot of mix-and-matching along the backline last season, the Huskies have used the same five starters on defense over their first three games.
There’s no midfield preview this season because in UConn’s attack, the midfield doesn’t exist anymore. The front five attackers hold a rough framework of positions, with two wide midfielders, a center mid and two forwards, but as the ball progresses towards the attacking third of the field, the lines between positions become more and more blurred.
A forward might drop down and play with their back to goal to help distribute up to the striker or to a winger. One of the wingers might cut towards the middle of the field to draw defenders in so they can either slot the ball behind through or send it back out wide.
It’s a flexible, versatile attack. And it’s exactly the way Rodriguez drew it up.
“I love a fluid attack. I love players interchanging and moving off one another,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like we get a little static in a 4-3-3 so what you saw is what I want and the players love it. It gives them creativity, it gives them spaces to move in and out of.”
With seniors Vivien Beil and Alana Moore, sophomores Kess Elmore and Duda Santin and freshman Jess Mazos making up the attack, UConn has notched five goals through two games. There’s plenty of talent there, though the chemistry is still a work in progress. That’ll come in time though, especially with more minutes together.
The biggest addition for the Huskies this season is the return of Elmore, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. She was the team’s second-leading goal scorer as a freshman in 2017 and the arrow is only pointing up for her.
“She’s electric on the field. She needed to get some confidence so getting two goals against Providence and here was big,” Rodriguez said. “She’s unpredictable. Sometimes she’s checking, sometimes she’s making a quick little run. When she sees it, she sees it. Our team needs to learn to play her quicker and she’ll get in behind the back line.”
UConn’s next game is on Sunday at 6 p.m. against Colgate at Al-Marzook Field at the University of Hartford. It should be the team’s final game at UHart before moving into Dillon Stadium for its Sep. 8 game against Boston University.