On Thursday, UConn women’s soccer will kick off its fifth season under head coach Margaret Rodriguez when it heads to West Point to take on Army (6 p.m., ESPN+).
The Huskies have made steady improvements every year since she took over, rising from 211 in RPI during Rodriguez’s first year in 2018 to 79th last season. Now, they’re looking for a breakthrough campaign that pushes them back towards the national spotlight — namely the NCAA Tournament, which the program hasn’t been to since 2016.
UConn should take another step forward this year, but whether it’s enough to push into the 64-team field will depend how much individual players improved over the offseason. The Huskies only lost eight players to graduation and the transfer portal, who combined to play just 1,162 minutes last season. For reference, nine players saw more minutes on their own in 2021.
That means, UConn returns almost every notable player from last year’s team in addition to a Power Five transfer and a strong freshman class. The entire starting lineup is back, too. Through Rodriguez’s first four seasons, she always joked that every year, she had a young team. That could finally be changing this fall.
“This may be the first year where I’m hoping to say we’re not young,” Rodriguez said in May. “Our freshmen are gonna be impactful. They’re good players coming in but we’re returning our starting lineup. So we’re hoping that health is in good fortune for us. We could be a lot more mature and experienced this year.”
UConn hasn’t had a double-digit goal scorer since the All-American duo of Stephanie Ribeiro and Rachel Hill in 2016. Junior Jaydah Bedoya has the best chance to end that drought.
Last year, Bedoya led the team with six goals and emerged as the program’s next star down the stretch. Through the first eight games, she totaled just one goal and two assists. Over the final 10 matches, Bedoya piled up five goals and two assists — good for .60 goals per 90 minutes. Not only does she have the speed and athleticism to beat defenders to the goal, she also has the skill and touch to get by them and can put the ball in the net from anywhere around the 18-yard box.
Bedoya isn’t the only threat up top either, as 2021 All-Big East Second Team selection Jada Konte racked up four goals as a sophomore last season and could be the beneficiary of increased defensive attention to Bedoya. On the left wing, Cara Jordan is back after tearing her ACL nine games into the 2021 campaign and is at her best when using her speed to get to the end line, where she can cut back to either deliver a cross or fire the ball on net.
Those three are the projected starters along the frontline but behind them, fifth year Duda Santin as well as freshmen Maddie Carroll and Chioma Okafor will boost the attack off the bench.
Last season, UConn never scored more than three goals and only reached that mark twice. The defense will provide the team with a solid floor but the Huskies’ ability to put the ball in the back of the net will decide their ceiling.
In the midfield, Jessica Mazo will pull the strings for this UConn team. After dealing with injuries last season, the Bridgeport native is primed for a big senior year. Mazo is a bulldog in the middle of the field who can shut down an opposing team’s attack and immediately spring the Huskies the other way. She’ll be the 8 — a traditional box-to-box mid — for UConn.
Behind her at the 6 — the defensive mid — is fellow senior Emma Zaccagnini. She played the second-most minutes on the team last season and is a steady, veteran presence to protect the back line.
Assuming the Huskies deploy some version of a 4-3-3 formation, that leaves one more opening in the midfield since Mazo and Zaccagnini are both projected to play close to 90 minutes each game. Sophomores Sophie McCarthy and Abby Jones are the two favorites to fill that final spot in the lineup.
After spending her first two years in the midfield, Lucy Cappadona will slide back to occupy one of the centerback positions next to Evelyn Arsenault on UConn’s backline. The move should further solidify the already-stout Huskies’ defense, which picked up five shutouts and held opponents to one goal or fewer over the final five games.
At left back, Jackie Harnett played a team-best 1,624 minutes last season while Sofia Weber started at right back during UConn’s final exhibition on Saturday against Quinnipiac. Beyond those four, the Huskies have plenty of depth on defense, whether it be NC State transfer Cara Elmendorf, junior Chloe Landers — who played the fifth-most minutes last year — sophomore Laci Lewis or fifth-year Kara Long.
Just like last year, UConn’s goalie competition is between junior Kaitlyn Mahoney and sophomore MaryKate Ward. Mahoney got the start in 17 of 18 games last season, posting a 1.28 goals against average and .806 save percentage across 1,333 minutes while Ward saw action in eight games with one start, finishing with a 1.79 GAA and .720 save percentage in 352 minutes.
Mahoney is the better shot-stopper but Ward is five inches taller, which helps her control the box better on crosses. The two each played a half in the exhibition on Saturday but Mahoney appears to be the favorite to earn the starting job thanks to her experience last season.