Margaret Rodriguez is less than a week into her fourth season at the helm of UConn women’s soccer and she already couldn’t be happier about one aspect of her team.
“I think this team is all bought in,” she said. “They understand the work it takes. They understand the sacrifice that it takes for each other.”
When Rodriguez took over as head coach back in 2018, she understood the program needed a total rebuild. The Huskies weren’t a good soccer team anymore and above all else, Rodriguez needed to change the culture of the program.
Now Rodriguez feels pretty comfortable on that front.
“We have great leadership within our program right now so our culture is awesome. We talked to the kids yesterday (Sunday) and they said, first off, this is — mentality wise — one of the best teams they’ve been on,” she said. “Some kids have been here for five years now and right now they’re all understanding what we need to do.”
UConn’s on-field play also took a significant step forward during the 2020-21 season — which was played in the spring instead of the fall because of the pandemic. The Huskies went 8-3-1 (6-2-1 Big East) and finished second in the Big East East Division. They secured one of the four spots in the conference tournament but fell to Butler in the semifinals, 2-1.
From that team, UConn lost Yamilee Eveillard (three goals, two assists), Kess Elmore (three goals) and Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky (three goals, one assist) up top, Melina Couzis (led the team with 1,124 minutes played), and Julia Petrillo on defense and three-year starter Randi Palacios in net.
Despite the bevy of transfers available because of the bonus fifth year of eligibility, the Huskies’ entire 10-player incoming class is comprised exclusively of freshmen. As a result, UConn will have a young squad — again.
“We knew we were going to be young (this year). I knew we were young last year and then I kept saying to myself, ‘When do we stop being young?’ because we brought in 10 freshmen again this year. I’m like ‘We’re still young,’” Rodriguez laughed.
The plan is that with the right development, having a few young teams in a row will pay off in two or three years.
“Last year was our first recruiting class (as a staff), this year is our second recruiting class,” Rodriguez said. “We expected to have some youth and we expected to get them a lot of playing time so by the time they’re juniors and seniors, the future looks really well for us.”
In goal, sophomore Kaitlyn Mahoney and freshman MaryKate Ward will compete for the starting job. Mahoney played in two games last season and started UConn’s first exhibition against UMass on Aug. 9, though Ward played the final 45. Both players impressed in different ways — Mahoney made a couple of strong saves while Ward showed a command on balls in the air.
“Mahoney stepped in there as an organizer, we could play through her feet well, MK came up huge in the air on some crosses, so we’ve got some decisions to make in net,” Rodriguez said.
The Huskies’ defensive line will be anchored by a pair of juniors, left-back Jackie Harnett and center-back Emma Zaccagnini. Sophomore Sofia Weber and freshman Laci Lewis started at center back and right back, respectively, though senior Kara Long did not play in the exhibition. If she’s healthy, expect her to play somewhere on defense.
“Emma’s slid back for us, she played midfield last year,” Rodriguez said. “We need a little bit of an organizer back there so Emma’s stepping up into a new role for us.”
UConn could afford to drop Zaccagnini back because of how deep its midfield runs. Sophomore Lucy Cappadona is a rock for the Huskies and will dictate play in the center of the park. Junior Jessica Mazo — a preseason All-Big East selection — and freshman Sophie McCarthy both project to start alongside Cappadona but sophomore Chloe Landers and freshman Joyce Ryder should also factor in as subs.
“I think our midfield emerged as sort of the backbone of our team,” Rodriguez said. “We’re able to play through our mids better. They’re kind of the heart and soul of how we play right now. To have more depth and not ask of Lucy right now or Mazo to play 90 minutes, the ability to switch and gives them breaks is gonna really help us right now.”
Up top, UConn will also rely on a collection of young, unproven talent. Junior Cara Jordan was the standout player in the Huskies’ exhibition against UMass. The left-winger looked dangerous every time she touched the ball and even drew a penalty.
“Cara Jordan from freshman year to now, she’s just grown in confidence, leaps and bounds,” Rodriguez said. “She’s an athletic player, unassuming player — you don’t expect her to have that speed...She’s developed tremendously and now it’s just about giving her the confidence. She’s earned the start outright.”
Sophomores Jada Konte and Jaydah Bedoya will also have major roles in the attack. While Bedoya scored just once and Konte didn’t find the back of the net at all as a freshman, Rodriguez believes once they finally break through, more goals will quickly follow.
“Jada Conte was a huge presence for us last year in the striker role. She came back even better than I think she did last year...This year, I guarantee you, she’s gonna find the back of the net for us. She’s put the work in over the summer,” the coach declared. “I think Jaydah Bedoya is going to come in and be a really good player for us. She’s crafty, she’s smart, she’s got a spark, she has another gear as well and it’s just a matter of time to when she breaks that goal — one or two — she’s going to start going.”
Senior Izzy Lynch — who led the team with four goals in just 256 minutes last season — senior Duda Santin and sophomore Lauren Hart are also options off the bench for the Huskies.
While UConn doesn’t have any apparent superstars, the team does have depth and talent at every position on the roster. The only problem is much of that talent is young and mostly inexperienced, which means the Huskies are still probably a couple of seasons away from becoming legitimate contenders in the Big East — at least in terms of the regular season trophy.
Still, UConn returns the foundation of its team from last season and should be just as good if not better. The Huskies’ floor will depend on their goalkeeper — both Mahoney and Ward are unproven in net until they aren’t — while their ceiling will be determined by the production from their young forwards.
If one of Jordan, Konte, or Bedoya can establish themselves double-digit goal-scorer (something UConn hasn’t had since Hill and Steph Ribeiro in 2016), the Huskies could be pretty good. If that doesn’t happen, the Huskies will need to lean on their defense and grind out results, just like they did last year.
Given where UConn is is a program, the Huskies will probably be the type of team that can score an upset or two but will also falter to a couple of bad losses. Ultimately, if UConn can finish in the top five in the Big East, make some noise in the conference tournament, and at least be in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament, that would be a successful fourth season for Rodriguez and Co.
The Huskies open their season on Saturday, Aug. 21 against CCSU at Morrone Stadium.