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UConn men’s soccer makes Big East Conference even stronger

Breaking down the Big East men’s soccer landscape.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Lost in the shuffle of UConn’s glorious return home to the Big East is the fact that the men’s soccer team has shiny new digs to host its new friends this fall. The new 4,000-seat soccer stadium — Joseph. J. Morrone Stadium at the Rizza Family Soccer Complex — is expected to be ready for the start of the new seasons in August...assuming they happen.

So it’s a new conference and a new stadium for the Huskies next season. What is the landscape of this new Big East? It’s a league littered with heavyweights; gone are the days of easy wins at Gettler Stadium, in Cincinnati (also because they axed their program).

Below, we’ll run down the favorites, players to watch, breakout candidates, and what to expect for the season as a whole.

With respect to Bill Walton and his Conference of Champions out west, the road to the NCAA title runs through the Big East next year. More specifically, it runs through Washington D.C. and Georgetown, who took home the 2019 College Cup with a penalty-kick victory over Virginia. The Hoyas are also three-time defending conference champs, and outmatched the Huskies last year during the regular season, 4-1.

Providence, Butler, and St. John’s all made the tournament last year as well, with the former falling to Clemson in the Sweet 16. All three teams boast enough individual talent returning (more on that later) to return to the Big Dance in 2020. And while they had a .500 year in 2019, Creighton is historically a strong soccer program and is usually found at the top of the standings.

Individually, the conference saw six players selected over the first day of the MLS SuperDraft, and nine overall in 2020. Georgetown’s Dylan Nealis, two time conference Defensive Player of the Year and reigning NCAA College Cup Defensive Most Outstanding Player was picked third overall by Inter Miami.

Big East teams combined for a 53-22-3 (.699) record against non-conference opponents. Last year, the Big East’s most played against conferences were the MAC and American. The league posted a 7-2-0 record against opponents from both leagues.

To get a better feel for Big East soccer, I sat down with Robbe Tarver, current assistant at the University of Evansville, who previously served on the University of Louisville’s staff. He’s spent the last three years scouting Big East competition, and had this to say about UConn’s new rivals:

Georgetown: Brian Wiese has the National Coaching Staff of the Year in tow. The staff boasts three top five MLS draft picks since 2016. They play a versatile 4-4-2 and have a good reputation of possession soccer. They’re deep and not afraid to use it — they played 20 different players in the Final Four last year. And while they may have lost some graduating talent, they’re bringing in the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, according to Top Drawer Soccer. In short, the Hoyas are a loaded, well-run program and consummate top dogs in the Big East.

St. John’s: Head coach Dave Masur is a legend in the college soccer ranks. The Red Storm boast the Big East Staff of the Year in 2019 on their way to their 21st NCAA appearance. After their second-place finish, they only lose four players and return Big East Offensive Player of the Year Tani Oluwaseyi (14 goals last year). However, they do lose Big East co-Goalkeeper of the Year in Jan Hoffelner. Also their field is on top of a parking garage? So there’s that.

Providence: The Fiars are coming off their 10th overall NCAA appearance, but first since 2016. They’re tasked with replacing four All-Conference selections, two of which were drafted into the MLS.

Butler: The Bulldogs have made the NCAA tournament three times in the last four years. They’re a blue-collar unit that relies on one or two attacking players for offensive production. They return Big East Freshman of the Year Wilmer Cabrera Jr, but lose two from the All-Conference Team.

Creighton: Last year was the Bluejays’ first year under Jonny Torres, who took the reigns after Elmar Bolowich stepped down. They’re a historically strong program, but have not made the NCAAs since 2016. A program in transition, they play an attacking style reliant on internationals and transfers. They have the No. 34 recruiting class according to Top Drawer Soccer.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles graduate four players that earned All-Conference accolades. They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Xavier: Now the only Division I soccer program in Cincinnati, the Muskies have only two winning seasons since a 2014 NCAA Tournament appearance. They play very direct and are organized defensively. Xavier has a history of red-shirting recruits and two made All-Conference teams last year. Karsen Henderlong is a player to watch.

Seton Hall: The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in the last decade. But New Jersey is a hotbed of soccer talent, so if their coach can tap into that, look out.

Villanova: For as dominant as Villanova men’s basketball has been in recent years, the soccer team has not found similar success.

DePaul: The Blue Demons have a strong regional recruiting class but like Seton Hall, haven’t fond much success in recent years.

In short, the Big East is a vastly underrated conference overall in the national conversation, right in step with the Big 10 and ACC. There is consistent quality from top to bottom, and very few easy wins. You can make the case that seven of the nine programs are consistent threats to make the NCAA Tournament, so conference play for Ray Reid and company will be a grind.

Stylistically, Georgetown is the cream of the crop, with a fluid attacking mindset. And teams like Xavier and Butler have strong collective approaches that make results hard to come by. And while programs such as Villanova and DePaul have not found success, they are situated in talent-rich areas for soccer and are one prudent coaching hire away from turning things around.

Chicago, Philadelphia, the Midwest tri-state of Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio and New Jersey are all regions with historically deep talent pools. That type of potential at the middle and lower tiers has helped vault the Big East to another level nationally. Next year, look for the Huskies to jostle with Providence and Butler, while taking aim at heavyweights St. John’s and Georgetown. For UConn men’s soccer, it’s so good to be home.