UConn men’s soccer kicked off the 2021 season by dispatching Sacred Heart in comfortable fashion. Fresh off a solid preseason and this momentum-garnering season-opener, there was some cautious optimism surrounding the program despite a roster in rebuilding mode and a gauntlet of a spring schedule.
Fast forward two months where the current state of the program is likely to make UConn soccer fans squeamish. I suggest taking numerous breaks and watching Cyle Larin or Andre Blake highlights as you read this breakdown of the Huskies’ meltdown.
UConn finished its spring season 1-6-1, scoring a whopping two goals while conceding 15. The loss of head coach Ray Reid before the season even began certainly played a role, with the legendary coach taking a leave of absence to deal with a personal matter. They also missed out on three games due to COVID-19 complications and had multiple players lost to injury. In short, it was a Murphy’s Law season for the Huskies where everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.
One of the few bright spots of the season was a 0-0 draw at Morrone Stadium against a Seton Hall squad that currently sits at 7-1-1. Another was the play of freshman Giancarlo Vaccaro, who looks like a building block after starting all seven games and logging one goal on five shots. Moussa Wade’s ascension is also promising, and he tied the team lead for shots (eight) with Okem Chime, while sophomore Jayden Reid showed glimpses of impressive playmaking ability as well.
Those are the silver linings to an otherwise dismal season that certainly required some reaching. Overall, it was an uninspired spring for the Huskies that saw little in attacking creativity. It doesn’t matter how well you defend, if you’re constantly being run at because you cannot hold the ball in possession, even the stoutest of defensive lines are bound to break down. As mentioned previously, injuries certainly played a role as they lost senior captain Robin Lapert after just one game in addition to sophomore defender Thomas Decottignies.
Excuses aside, it was an ugly debut campaign for the shiny and new Joseph Morrone Stadium. One caveat to the Huskies’ sad season was that the division break-up of the Big East for the spring season put most of the conference heavyweights in the East. Multiple games against Seton Hall, No. 2 Georgetown, and Providence are not conducive to a rebuilding team looking for its footing. Overall, the Big East put three teams in the top 25 while Providence also received votes. In comparison, the American Athletic Conference that the Huskies recently departed had the same amount.
So what’s the straightest line back to being a consistent presence in the Top 25? Most soccer programs experience their fair share of peaks and valleys. The sustainability and zenith of those peaks depends on a variety of factors, but if you’re like UConn and have a vast recruiting budget, the most important factor is how often you can mesh impact underclassmen with an experienced roster. The more players you find that can come in and play right away their first two years, the better. Retain them, develop them, and watch them ascend to all-conference material by the time they’re upperclassmen. Then, pair them with the next wave of young underclassmen. Rinse and repeat, and pretty soon you’re bringing in talent based on reputation alone.
The problem is, that’s a blueprint UConn men’s soccer shouldn’t have to follow because they’ve done it already. They’re a blue blood that has sent dozens of names to the pros, is supposed to always be in contention, and boasts the largest fan base in the country. But those days are quickly becoming a distant memory. Even the 2018 run must come with some sobering context as a second-round NCAA tournament berth used to be a foregone conclusion. A perennial Top-25 team and conference heavyweight is the house that Reid built, but that house’s foundation is crumbling, and fast.
The fix won’t come right away, but there is some strange confidence that comes with taking licks all season and learning from the experience. The shared misery of a season like this could be fuel for the kids as they head to the offseason and get better. And young teams that stick around tend to be very dangerous in a few years. Not only are they experienced, but they vividly remember the beating they took as young players.
The hope is that come fall 2021, the team takes that next step forward. It won’t get easier with the scheduled opponents, however. While there are winnable games against the likes of Xavier, Butler, and DePaul, the Huskeis are also slated to face Marquette, who finished the regular season No. 24 in the country, and a talented Creighton team.
Manufactured ties against Seton Hall and New Hampshire (albeit, preseason) show that the defensive spine is indeed there. But it doesn’t matter if UConn is playing the Hoyas of Georgetown or the Colonels of Centre College. If they don’t find a way to create chances in the attacking third and turn possession into opportunity, they will struggle again.
The disastrous season was a baptism-by-fire for the likes of Wade, Reid, and Vaccaro. If they take the next step, they will be promising pieces to build around Lapert (should he use his extra year of eligibility) and junior Felix Metzler. But the sad reality is that it’s unfair to expect UConn soccer to return to their glory days in the span of six months and fans should be prepared for a long road back to prominence.