When Margaret Rodriguez became the third head coach in UConn women’s soccer’s program history in 2018, she understood the size of the task ahead of her. Despite being only a year removed from American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships with a 19-3-1 overall record, the Huskies had fallen from their perch as one of the top programs in the country.
The Huskies, who made the first 26 NCAA Tournaments and went to the national championship game four times, missed the tournament for the first time in 2008 and were ultimately left out five times over the next 10 seasons. When Rodriguez replaced the retired Len Tsantiris, she was under no false illusions about the state of the program.
“When I took over in 2018, I knew it was going to be a little bit of a slow bit rebuild,” she said.
Still, Rodriguez had a plan for how to turn things around. She laid out three basic but crucial goals: Aggressively recruit players she felt fit her vision of the program, develop the players she already had, and change the culture.
After a dreadful 4-14 campaign in her first year followed by a 6-8-3 mark last season, the results are finally beginning to show in the third year of Rodriguez’s tenure thanks to those three pillars.
UConn closed the regular season — which is being played in the spring instead of the fall due to the pandemic — with a 8-2-1 record and a plus-15 goal differential. The Huskies have only dropped one game in regulation and have earned a shutout in eight of 11 games. They finished second in the Big East’s East Division, clinching a spot in the conference tournament.
“We’re very happy with the way the season has gone and with the results that we’ve gotten this year,” Rodriguez said. “We’re very pleased with where we’re at as a program.”
For Rodriguez, the program’s culture was paramount. Without a strong and healthy culture, the recruiting and development would be irrelevant. So early on, Rodriguez and her assistants — Carey (Dorn) O’Brien and Vanessa Phillips Bosshart — were responsible for setting the tone. Once they established the culture, they knew the players would eventually take over.
“That’s one of our biggest selling points for our program, our culture,” she said. “In 2018, our staff I think was driving the culture, setting standards, expectations and holding players accountable and then it switched into 2019 where the players are now driving that boat and I’m now just a part of this culture and that’s the way I think it should be. Your players should drive the culture.
“We don’t have rules. We have expectations and standards in our program.”
During that same 2019 season, the fruits of development started to the on-field results. UConn began the year 4-7-1 but finished the year with two wins, two ties and just one loss of the final five games.
“I think last year we started to turn the corner as a program by playing the way we needed to play and grinding out some results,” she said. “After that season it’s like ‘Alright we know how to play and we know how to get results, now we just have to learn how to win.”
That started with the seniors. Five players in that class saw over 300 minutes as sophomores on the Huskies’ 4-14 team during Rodriguez’s first year and four of them are now playing important roles this season: Melina Couzis, Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky, Yamilee Eveillard and Randi Palacios.
“Their development has been a complete 180,” Rodriguez said of the seniors.
No player has developed more than Palacios. She became UConn’s starting goalkeeper as a redshirt sophomore but struggled, giving up 37 goals in 17 games (2.27 goals against average) and saving just 67.3 percent of shots she faced. As a senior, Palacios is 17th nationally (min. 500 minutes played) with a .47 goals against average and was named the Big East’s Co-Goalkeeper of the Year on Thursday.
“I can’t take credit for it but her development from her freshman year to where she is now as a fifth year senior is just instrumental with everything she’s done,” Rodriguez said of Palacios. “She’s put forward, she’s trusted Vanessa (the goalkeeping coach) and I think we’ve maximized Randi’s potential as a player for us.”
Meanwhile, Couzis came to Storrs as a central midfielder but has been a stalwart at center back the last two seasons. Rodriguez referred to her as “a coach on the field” and on Thursday, Couzis made the All-Big East First Team.
“It was about midway through last year, 2019, where [Couzis] finally was like ‘Okay, I can play center back, I see what you’re doing.’ Instead of fighting it she finally just accepted it,” the coach said. “Her development has been through the roof for us.”
The final piece in Rodriguez’s plan was recruiting, something she knew she had to be patient with.
“Across the country, you recruit really early so I knew in 2018, we weren’t really going to see our first recruiting class until 2020,” she said. “So this [freshman class] is our first recruiting class as a staff.”
While it’s still early, the freshman have provided a sizable impact. Three — Jaydah Bedoya, Lucy Cappadona and Jada Konte — have played more than 400 minutes and have combined for four goals and four assists. Few players, regardless of class, have been more important for the Huskies than Cappadona, a center midfielder with 999 minutes under her belt — second-most on the team.
“Our most valuable player is probably Lucy,” Rodriguez said. “She’s been the most consistent player from start to finish for our program.”
“She makes our team work,” the coach added later. “She’s always in the right spot positionally. She works her butt off, she’ll sacrifice for the team, make the big tackles, win balls in the air for us and she really just connects us out of pressure very well.”
Then there’s the sophomores, who are products of both good recruiting and development. Rodriguez had to single-handedly sign the class after she took over and Jackie Harnett, Cara Jordan, Jessica Mazo and Emma Zaccagnini all emerged as contributors as freshman. Those four have all taken a major step forward this season and form UConn’s spine.
“Our sophomore class is probably our most impactful class within our program right now in the turnaround,” Rodriguez said.
In the short-term, the Huskies’ next goal is to win the Big East Tournament this weekend, which begins on Friday with a 5:00 p.m. clash against Butler, to earn an automatic bid into the 48-team NCAA Tournament.
Long-term, UConn still has higher aims, such as becoming a perennial top 25 team, consistently winning games in the NCAA Tournament, etc. But rebuilding takes time, something Rodriguez acknowledged when she first took over, and three seasons in, the results of that process are finally starting to show.