Ray Reid had an illustrious career for UConn men’s soccer, but certainly didn’t stick the landing. The Huskies went 7-7-2 last fall, 5-12-1 in 2019, and have only made the NCAA tournament twice since 2015. Despite a shiny new Morrone stadium and a Goal Patrol consistently leading the nation in attendance, there’s no denying the program has certainly lost its luster in the last seven years.
That’s all in the past now. UConn men’s soccer will kick off its 2022 season Thursday afternoon and Husky legend Chris Gbandi is tasked with reviving a powerhouse. For the first time in 25 years, Ray Reid —now technical director at the USL side Hartford Athletic — won’t be stalking the sidelines and barking orders.
New head coach Chris Gbandi inherits a young but talented roster. Expectations are always high at UConn, but now lower among peers; UConn was voted to finish eighth in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll last week.
Gbandi recently stopped by the College Soccer News podcast for a lengthy chat. He called the UConn job “one of those things I’ve dreamed about since I played here.” But he also noted that “there’s a lot of work to do, so you can’t get excited for too long.”
Gone is Felix Metzler, the Huskies’ metronome in the middle for the last four seasons. Seniors Dominic Laws and Djimon Johnson, as well as grad transfer Jahmali Waite, have also moved on. Other notable contributors gone from last season’s team include Ahdan Tait, Ben Awashie, Giancarlo Vaccaro, and Gianluca Catalano. Awashie notched three goals and two assists in nine starts last year, while Waite started every game.
There is still plenty about the roster to be excited about. Sophomore midfielders Mateo Leveque and junior captain Jayden Reid both return and the former was just named to the Preseason All-Big East team, UConn’s only preseason honoree. Sophomore forward Okiem Chime, who paced UConn with four goals, is back, as is junior central midfielder Moussa Wade, who notched a team-high six assists in 2021.
Reid and Wade combined for eleven out of the Huskies' 24 assists last season along with five goals between them. Sophomores Bjorn Nikolajewski and Guillaume Vector anchor the backline, along with talented juniors Thomas Decottignies and Josh Morgan.
Amongst the transfers, keep an eye on junior midfielder Soren Illsoe, who followed Gbandi over from Northeastern after being named to the All-Colonial Athletic Association rookie team last year. There’s also Frantz Pierrot, who bagged 13 goals and two assists in the last two years for Merrimack, and goalkeeper Michael Stone, a grad transfer from Boston University who started all 18 matches in 2021.
Not much is known about the incoming freshman class, but it does feature eight players from outside the United States, with representation from England, Denmark, Cyprus, Quebec, Germany, Haiti, and Spain. Domestically, Eli Conway out of New Jersey was the leading goal scorer for MLS-Next club Cedar Stars Academy.
This isn’t Europe!
One of the more frustrating things watching Reid’s team was the way he used his roster. For all of the talent UConn has brought in over the years, he acted as if this was Europe and he had only five subs, as substitution is unlimited in college, but players subbed out in the first half cannot return until the second half.
If a team has a top-to-bottom talent advantage, like UConn often does, it pays to keep guys fresh with substitutes and throw different looks at teams. Gbandi’s rotation last year at Northeastern usually went seven deep. With arguably more talent on the roster, will he do the same in Storrs?
Press Early, Press Often
Another criticism levied against Reid’s team in recent years was the lack of identity and fresh tactical ideas. Look for the high press that’s become so popular professionally to take hold in Storrs. Said Gbandi, “I want to be a pressing team, forward-thinking, aggressive. It's about being proactive in the way we play from defending, pressing high, and winning the ball and playing forward.”
The next quote from CSN’s pod should excite fans everywhere.
“You won’t see a UConn team sit back and say: ‘hey we’re going to take it and counter,’” Gbandi commented. “It doesn’t suit my personality as a coach. We’re going to be purposeful in the way we play. I want us to be an attacking group. But there are games where that aspect must be managed.”
It’s tough for a new coach to blend their past experiences with their own style, and Gbandi gets that. “The biggest and most important thing is to come up with an identity, he noted. “When you’re an assistant, you’re influenced by so many people. You try to take all those and put it into yours. Then all of a sudden you have to be yourself. After a while, I learned how I want my team, my locker room, and attributes of my players to look like. Those six years at Northeastern prepared me for that.”
Big East: Murderers Row
The Big East is loaded. Georgetown is fresh off a Final Four and national championship in the last two years. They’re not even picked to win the conference, Providence is.
But what makes the Big East special is the Neapolitan nature of the programs. “The conference is unique in it has so many different styles, Gbandi offered. “The Pac 12, ACC have similar styles. In our league, you have teams from all over parts of the country. Those different parts have different styles. But we want to control what we can control.”
Added Gbandi, “Our conference is stacked year in and year out. If you watch over the years, there are a lot of successful teams that don’t just rely on talent. We’ve been trying to get our guys to understand that.”
Started From the Bottom
If there’s one thing to take away from Gbandi’s interview, its that he’s a players coach. He will have his team ready to run through a wall for him, and that’s by design.
“The path along the way was not easy, said Gbandi. “But that was by design. I realized I wanted to start from the bottom and work my way up, so when I get to where I want to be, nobody can say it was handed to me because I was a former player. When I started out here after I was done playing for Miami, I was a volunteer making no money. I knew then I was learning how to be a coach and how to run a program.”
It may not happen overnight, but the goals remain lofty for a program of UConn’s stature. Gbandi was blunt when addressing this: “The two biggest things we’ve talked about is playing for each other, and to win a national championship. Any time you’re at a place like UConn, you’re looking to be a pro. Most of our guys have that ambition. You can do both. Your number one thing is to get an education, number two is to win a national championship. If you do that, you’ll be a pro.”
Gbandi noted: “I try not to talk too much about what we did here, but it’s no surprise that the team that won in 2000 had close to six to eight guys drafted. If you’re successful, that’s what ends up happening. The key thing is to focus on that team aspect first.”
It’s clear from the CSN podcast that the program’s recent stagnancy is not some taboo subject and is instead addressed head-on. Gbandi is looking to nip that in the bud: “The biggest thing we preach is a growth mindset.” He added, “Are you coming in every day to improve? Or do you feel like you already made it? We have a lot of work to do, so next year is finding a way to compete in each and every game.”
Detractors will point to Gbandi’s one winning season in six years at Northeastern as an awfully pedestrian record to hand over to a program of UConn’s stature. But the reality is UConn can’t call itself elite in the men’s soccer world anymore. Perhaps a coach like Gbandi, who made the Northeastern Huskies relevant, can work the same magic for another set of Huskies. It’s a gamble that Gbandi, who did more with less at Northeastern, can really shine when armed with the resources and reputation UConn soccer still has. Having listened to the man for only 20 minutes, that seems like a smart bet.
The Huskies' season opener on Thursday Charlotte can be seen on FloSports. Kick-off is at 4 p.m.