If there’s one thing UConn men’s soccer must do this upcoming season, it's ’be a goldfish.’ After a tumultuous few seasons, head coach Ray Reid seems to be channeling his inner Ted Lasso.
“You know, it wasn’t a season,” Reid remarked on the spring. “I don’t even look at the spring, to be honest. Two and a half minutes into the first day of preseason, no one’s going to give a blank about last spring.”
For those that do count the season, UConn went an unprecedented 0-6-1, mustering only five goals. After 2019 — Reid’s first losing season in Storrs — appeared to be a low point for the program, the spring of 2021 found a new level of ignominy for the once-dominant Huskies. They open the 2021-2022 season on Saturday night at 7 p.m. against Bryant.
Reid has spent this preseason offering up some much-needed perspective. He also recently made some staff additions, promoting Scott Halpern to assistant coach and hiring Bill Reno on as the goalkeeper coach.
“We had an off-year in 2019 for sure,” said Reid. “We played in Hartford. We didn’t have any way to practice. There weren’t a lot of fans. We’re going to get it back this year. We haven’t been in essence here (on campus) since October of 2018. We’ve had nothing close to the UConn environment. So now we’re getting back to business. We’re excited to get to play at home. We’re excited to get the program where it needs to be.”
It’s been three years since the Huskies played a home game on campus. Home games during the disappointing 5-12-1 season in 2019 were played at Dillon Stadium in Hartford as the shiny new Rizza Sports Complex was under construction. The Goal Patrol, after consistently leading the nation in attendance for the last decade, was reduced to a handful of Husky faithful shipped out on buses. Then the fall 2020 campaign was canceled, and the spring 2021 season, well, everyone, especially Reid, has hit Ctrl Alt Delete on that.
While Reid is moving on, some players have drawn valuable lessons from the spring, like Bridgeport native Ahdan Tait, a rising senior and leader on the team.
“That was probably the toughest season I’ve had to go through. I took from it that you can get through more than you think if you keep pushing and working. I read something over the summer that stuck; you shouldn’t look at it as you’re getting tired, you should look at it as you’re getting stronger. That’s what I took from the spring.”
Senior goalkeeper Jahmali White’s takeaway was similar: “(It’s about) being tough and enjoying the moments when you get to go out with your team. You never know when that chance won’t be there. You have to make the best of it.”
Never underestimate the importance of an actual preseason. As Tait noted, “the coaches have been pushing us, but we needed it. We needed a certain toughness and we’re getting it from preseason. It feels like a new beginning. Last fall in preseason we were training in groups of fours. Now we’re going against each other and other teams.”
So what’s the outlook on the Huskies for the fall?
The success will depend on merging talented newcomers with a solid spine. Seniors Tait and Felix Metzler —who earned Third-Team All-Big East Honors last spring — anchor the midfield, while sophomore Moussa Wade returns after a spring season netting a team-high two goals.
Freshmen Giancarlo Vaccaro and Maxwell DeBodene each logged a goal in the spring and are potential attacking threats. Keep an eye on a finally-healthy sophomore Thomas Decottignies, juniors Jayden Reid and Ben Awashie, as well as freshman Okem Chime, the latter two who combined for 16 shots last spring.
Gone is Robin Lapert and his guidance at center back. If UConn can find a suitable replacement there to link with Metzler and keep the line organized, it will go a long way in keeping the Huskies in games this year. Sophomore Josh Morgan is a prime candidate, as well as senior transfer Sosa Emovon from Michigan.
Reid has reloaded with newcomers that will look to pick up the scoring slack. The jewel is Dominic Laws, a transfer from Saint Peter’s, who’s the reigning two-time MAAC Player of the Year and bagged 17 goals the last two seasons. There’s also Guillaume Vacter who started every game in the spring for Rider as a freshman, and Darrin Henry from Rutgers.
As far as true freshmen, Bjorn Nikolajewski from Berlin, Germany, and Greg Maclean from the New England Revolution academy are exciting young prospects. Then there’s Scott Testori the USA Today Player of the Year, from Madison, Connecticut. Per Reid, “Testori’s been a surprise. He’s done a good job up front and is a big, strong guy. He may help us a little bit this year.”
Four straight home games to start the season offers a chance for a young rebuilding roster to gain some momentum. But after that, the road is tough; counting a preseason friendly vs. New Hampshire, UConn faces four teams that made the NCAA tournament last spring. That includes Big East heavyweight Georgetown, fresh off Final Four appearances from the spring. The Hoyas and Seton Hall check in at No. 5 and No. 10 in the NCAA preseason coaches’ poll released on Wednesday. No. 19 Marquette stormed through its spring conference with a 5-1-1 record.
Preseason coaches polls have UConn finishing tied for eighth in the conference with Xavier. That’s what happens you go a combined 6-18-2 in the last two seasons. But the ranking, combined with zero preseason all-conference selections, should offer plenty of bulletin board material for the locker room. They can turn heads by doing two simple things, and the leaders on the team recognize them. Tait wants the Huskies as a whole to be “cleaner and sharper in the offensive third, more clinical,” while White wants to “make our home a fortress again.”