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UConn men’s soccer season preview: Opportunities everywhere

The Huskies kick off the 2021 season today vs. Sacred Heart at 2 p.m.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It’s 29 degrees in Storrs, so of course soccer is back. The UConn men’s soccer team kicks off its 2021 campaign today against Sacred Heart University, christening the brand-spanking new Joseph J. Morrone Stadium at the Rizza Family Sports Complex at 2:00 p.m.

You can stream the game here.

For the Huskies, it’s been a long 432 days since the 2019 season mercifully ended at the hands of UCF. UConn suffered its first losing season under head coach Ray Reid, going 5-12-1 overall and 2-5-1 in the American Athletic Conference.

The Huskies return 15 players, including senior Robin Lapert, junior Felix Metzler, and sophomore Moussa Wade. They will be bolstered by a pair of transfers — junior defender Sosa Emovon from Michigan and senior goalkeeper Jahmali Waite from Farleigh Dickinson. Emovon logged 14 appearances in two years for the Wolverines while Waite started in all 19 matches for the Knights in 2019.

UConn also welcomes seven freshman, including Okem Chime — a 6-foot-1 center forward from Barnet in the United Kingdom — and Max De-Bodene, a midfielder from St. Petersburg, Florida. Also keep an eye on Kai Griese a left midfielder from Germany.

Even though they return so many, the team’s identity could be a work in progress. The question on everyone's mind to start will be who creates chances and who puts the ball in the back of the net.

UConn scored 25 goals in 18 games last year but that includes a random 6-3 shellacking of Tulsa. Gone is the steady production Jordan Hall and Dayonn Harris, who combined for 26 points in 2019 despite the former only playing nine games. UConn also must replace Jake Dengler, a center back and aerial threat who was fourth on the team in points.

The good news is the Huskies have a strong spine in place. Lapert is a rock at center back and is the team’s top returning goal scorer as an aerial threat who’s a matchup nightmare on set pieces. Metzler is the metronome in the middle that had his 2019 season cut short by a foot injury. Wade is a skilled attacking threat that can link with talented junior Ibrahima Diop. Keep an eye on sophomores Jayden Reid and Ben Awashie as well as Thomas Decottignies, who started in 14 of 15 games as a freshman at right wing back.

The Huskies will lean on the senior leadership from Djimon Johnson, a Bridgeport native, and Ziyad Fekri, a dangerous attacking fullback who logged two assists in 2019. Out wide there’s the reliable redshirt junior Ahdan Tait, another Bridgeport native, who registered two goals and an assist in 2019.

Overall, there’s an intriguing balance to this team; the Huskies boast size, athleticism, and play-making up and down the roster. There’s young, raw talent mixing in with experienced role players. And most importantly there’s opportunity for players to step into bigger roles across the board. It’s on Reid and his staff to make the puzzle pieces fit. UConn often looked rudderless to close out 2019 when Hall and Metzler were out. Who steps up and fills those chance-creating voids?

Before conference foes such a Providence and St. John’s arrive (it feels so good to type that and not Tulsa), UConn must first dispatch the Pioneers. Don’t scoff at Sacred Heart’s 2-11-3 mark from 2019 — it returns nine players, including top goal-scorer Segundo Navarro.

UConn’s exhibition season was a success as the Huskies dispatched Fordham 1-0 and tied the UNH, a 2019 NCAA tournament team.

Lineup Predictions

This is a tremendous shot in the dark, but it’s a fun little experiment.

Goalkeeper: Looks like its the transfer Waite’s job since. Junior keeper Gigi Catalano, who started in 13 games in 2019 before suffering a quad tear, might still be on the mend. Waite was between the posts for UConn’s preseason tilt vs. New Hampshire and actually played vs. UConn back in 2019, a 2-1 Husky loss. The battle between the transfer and incumbent will certainly be one to watch going forward.

Defense: No Dengler and Blaise N’Gague to pair with Lapert. So maybe Reid goes with a 3-5-2, with Decottignies and Zekri as the fullbacks? Or maybe Emovon is paired with Lapert? Or sophomore Josh Morgan? Bueller?

Midfield: An utter crapshoot, but let’s assume Reid does trot out a 3-5-2 with an inverse triangle in the middle. Metzler occupies the point, sitting ahead of Lapert, with Wade and Awashie in the middle. Jayden Reid is in line for time in that middle triangle too. Out wide, Tait and Johnson perhaps, with Diop getting work there too. Freshmen DeBodene and Griese could crack the rotation too

Forward: Wade, Diop, or Chime duking it out for two of the spots or maybe just Diop as the lone target man.

All of those projections could look incredibly stupid in three hours. But the important thing is that soccer is finally back in Storrs.