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Huskies in the Pros: Footy Edition

Andre Blake, Stephanie Labbe, and Rachel Hill are some of the former Huskies active in pro soccer leagues across the U.S.

LAFC v Philadelphia Union: MLS Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Due to the lingering pandemic, it’s uncertain if we’ll be able to watch the current iterations of UConn men’s and women’s soccer in action this fall. What we can be certain about is that there are plenty of Husky alumni playing professionally in the U.S. to keep an eye on in the meantime.

Major League Soccer has returned with the MLS is Back Tournament, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has been cruising along since June with some long overdue recognition finally coming their way, and even the United Soccer League (USL) is revving back up with an interesting fan strategy worth watching.

Across these three leagues, let’s revisit the former Huskies playing pro ball and see how they’re faring on the pitch so far:

Andre Blake

Probably UConn men’s soccer’s most famous alumni, the keeper remains a model of consistency for the Philadelphia Union. Blake’s not even 30 yet — remember goalkeepers have a slightly extended development curve and shelf life — and he’s logged 127 starts out of a possible 127 games in his career, not to mention two all-star nods (2016 and 2019) and a permanent grasp on the Jamaican national team keeper spot.

As the Union look to finally capitalize on their steady rebuild, Blake has been a calming influence between the posts. I checked in with vaunted MLS scribe (and Husky fan!) Matt Doyle for a brief snapshot on Blake’s importance to Philadelphia, and here’s what he had to say:

“The ‘one of MLS’ best’ tag was up for debate after last year, during which he struggled a ton. He was good out of the gates back in March, and obviously had himself a stunner July 9 against NYCFC — his first truly outstanding performance in a while. It was good to see that.”

“He’s now been with the Union for this whole journey under Jim Curtin and I think the sense is that one way or another, this is the year it has to pay off with a title of some sort. If that’s going to happen, they’ll need more performances like yesterday’s from him.”

During the previous day’s contest, Blake took on former assistant coach Paul McDonough who is currently serving as Sporting Director for Inter Miami FC. He had three saves in the 2-1 victory, including a finger-tip stop in the 62nd minute. The Union are now tied for first in Group A, with Orlando City holding a slight edge based on goal differential.

Jake Nerwinski

The defender for the Vancouver Whitecaps has started in 68 of the 72 possible matches during his four years in the MLS. Unfortunately, Vancouver has been unable to gain much footing in the standings aside from a 2017 run to the Western Conference semis. With several ‘Caps players sitting out the MLS is Back tournament due to COVID-19 concerns, look for Nerwinski to see more consistent playing time. The Whitecaps resume play tonight at 9 p.m. EST against San Jose.

Stephanie Labbe

Moving over to the National Women’s Soccer League — which I must say has been a sheer delight to watch — Labbe is one of two former Huskies competing. She’s been with the 2019 league champion North Carolina Courage for a year now and has ammassed 16 caps during her tenure. Prior to joining the Courage, she spend some time with the Washington Spirit and enjoyed successful international stints in Sweden and Norway. Many pundits peg the Courage as heavy favorites to repeat in 2020, so expect Labbe to be a integral part of the title defense. Next up for Labbe and the Courage (which would be an awesome band name) is a Friday, July 17 tilt against the Portland Thorns.

Rachel Hill

The second Husky alumni in the NWSL earned some less-than-stellar publicity to start the campaign, but the forward for the Chicago Red Stars has gone on to start in three of the four games to begin the season. During Sunday’s match, she played the full 90 minutes as the Red Stars tied the Utah Royals.

The New Hampshire native played the last two seasons for Perth Glory of the W-League, the women’s top-flight division in Australia, where she racked up 15 goals in 26 appearances. She was on loan in the land down-undah through the Orlando Pride, who then traded her to Chicago this winter.

Abdou Mbacke Thiam

The striker is entering his second season with Louisville City FC, one of the premier clubs in the USL. His rookie season saw him net three goals in 26 appearances, including 12 starts. The USL and Lou City have raised eyebrows across the sports world for their unconventional approach to reopening—limited capacity — so it will be interesting to see how this strategy unfolds at Louisville’s shiny new stadium.

Lou City took a 3-1 loss on the chin last Saturday and will look to bounce back this coming Saturday when they’ll face Saint Louis F.C. at 8 p.m. That game can be found on ESPN+.

Speaking of the worldwide leader’s streaming service, all USL games can be streamed on ESPN+, while several have even been picked up by ESPN2. Goal Patrol legend Dan Connolly caught Lou City’s debut and reached out lamenting the beating Abdou took from Hounds defenders, while also sharing his displeasure with the alarming lack of calls. So, if anything, tune in and help Dan scream at the TV so he’s not the only one.

Dayonn Harris

Mbacke Thiam’s assist partner at Storrs was drafted by Real Salt Lake this past SuperDraft and loaned out to the Real Monarchs, winners of the 2019 USL Championship. Harris got the start in the season debut, and was subbed off in the 79th minute. It’s exciting that two of UConn’s premier talents in the last three years landed at such good spots in the USL. Harris and the Monarchs will face the Colorado Springs Switchbacks on Saturday, July 18.

Jacob Hauser-Ramsey

The smooth centre-back and former AAC Defensive Player of the Year has moved on from Memphis 901 in the USL to play for the Portland Timbers II side. He started the club’s first game of the 2020 season, after starting in 11 of 14 games for Memphis last season.

Jake Dengler

The Loyola transfer is home. After one year at UConn, the Baltimore native now plays for Loudon United FC.

Carlos Alvarez

Alvarez is on the West Coast rubbing elbows with Landon Donovan’s club, the San Diego Loyal. He’s started two of the last three games for Landon’s club, and here’s a really cool tome about him and his wife, also a professional soccer player in Mexico.

Everyone else

Even those that didn’t finish their career at UConn are finding success in the pros. Nkosi Burgess, who transferred to Seattle University after graduating from UConn, was drafted 14th overall by F.C. Dallas in this year’s college SuperDraft. He hasn’t been loaned out yet, but don’t expect to see Burgess and Dallas for a while.

Austin Aviza, who transferred to Providence last year, was drafted by Orlando City with the 44th overall pick in the 2020 SuperDraft. He was sent to Orlando City B, the team’s tier-2 USL side where play has yet to begin.