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With all its keepers injured, UConn women’s soccer relies on a field player in goal to beat Yale

The Huskies lost their two healthy goalies to injury on Friday night, which forced them to put a field player in goal for the entire second half.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Of all the wins in UConn women’s soccer history, No. 625 may have been the most unique. On Friday night, the Huskies took down in-state rival Yale 2-1 despite playing without a healthy goalkeeper for nearly the entire game. It’s something head coach Margaret Rodriguez had never seen in her soccer life.

“In my entire player career, my entire coaching career, I’ve never been in the situation,” she said postgame.

During warmups, starting goalie Kaitlyn Mahoney broke her wrist, which gave sophomore MaryKate Ward the start. UConn was already thin at the position with freshman Adyson Duran out with a hamstring injury, so Rodriguez knew they needed an emergency plan in case the worst-case scenario happened and Ward went down, too.

“When I saw Mahoney down in warm-ups, I immediately knew MK was going in — that’s a no-brainer one — but I immediately looked to [assistant and goalkeeper coach Courtney Hofer] and [assistant coach Carey O’Brien] like, ‘We need to figure out who our backup is right now.’ And I looked at Courtney, she looked at me, I’m like ‘It’s gotta be Maca (Sophie McCarthy).’”

It took a little more than 12 minutes for disaster to strike when Yale’s Giovanna Dionicio tried to chip it over Ward. As she watched the ball sail over her head, Ward’s knee buckled when Dionicio ran through it, which sent the goalie down in a heap. Just like that, UConn found itself in the unthinkable scenario.

“MK went down, I looked over and Maca looks at me, she’s like ‘It’s me, isn’t it?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s you,’” Rodriguez said.

“[The coaching staff] made eye contact with me when MK went down and I knew,” McCarthy explained. “That’s when I started to get the blood flowing.”

The Huskies didn’t have to break the glass on the emergency box just yet, though. Ward cleared the initial tests by the training staff to stay in the game and refused to come out. Despite barely being able to move — she often resorted to hopping on one leg to get around — she gutted out the final 33 minutes of the half and even made a few saves.

“That’s taking one for the team. That’s doing what is necessary to get us through to that half,” Rodriguez said of Ward. “She checked out and she looked fine when we looked at her and said ‘No, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ I said, ‘We got a kid warming up,’ and she said, ‘I’m doing this, I’m fine.’”

Once the half came, it was clear Ward couldn’t continue. At some point, the knee “slipped out” according to Rodriguez and it came time for UConn to call on McCarthy. The sophomore midfielder had started four games and appeared in all seven contests — including 13 minutes in the first half against Yale — but hadn’t played goalie since seventh grade, in her best estimation. Regardless, the coaching staff felt she’d be their best option.

“She’s got a little crazy in her. She’s probably our best kid in the air and she’s comfortable reading a backline, too, and she can hit a really good ball — almost like sweeper-keeper type of scenario,” Rodriguez said of McCarthy. “You need a little crazy in there. She’ll go and attack a ball in the air against four or five kids, she’ll just try to do it with her hands now.”

To her credit, McCarthy didn’t overthink her new position.

“I definitely have fun with it. I don’t know. I’m pretty agile to make some dives for the most part,” she said. “I was just trying to get my body between the ball in the net. That’s all you really gotta do.”

UConn’s attack took some pressure off when Cara Elmendorf found the back of the net just four minutes into the second half but it would’ve created an even bigger cushion if it didn’t miss a couple of sitters in front of the goal. Yale tied it on a laser into the side-netting in the 60th minute but there was little McCarthy could do.

“I got my fingertips on the goal, so that’s a win for me,” she said.

Outside of that one mistake, the Huskies’ defense kept the ball away from goal and limited McCarthy’s touches. She only needed to make one save while the Bulldogs only generated three more shots — none of which came close to the frame. With a goalie who couldn’t move for most of the first half and a field player behind them for nearly the entire game, UConn’s defense showed why it’s the strength of the team.

“It’s big time,” Rodriguez said of the defensive performance. “That’s what we’ve been going for all year — to not allow shots.”

It also helped that Yale was oblivious to the Huskies’ situation. When Ward could barely move in the first half, the Bulldogs didn’t press UConn’s back line to make distributing harder for the goalie. Once McCarthy went in, the visitors did little to test her.

Lucy Cappadona put the Huskies back ahead off a corner kick in the 84th minute and they held on the rest of the way to earn the win. When the final whistle sounded, the team mobbed McCarthy to celebrate.

“Phenomenal,” Rodriguez said of McCarthy’s performance in goal. “No kid wants to be in that situation. She doesn’t want to be in that position but she didn’t hesitate. To me, that’s a team and the whole team rallied for her.”

As memorable as the win was, UConn can’t enjoy it for too long. Mahoney and Ward are both out at least four weeks with their respective injuries and although Duran will be back sooner, “it won’t be next week” according to Rodriguez. That means the Huskies will start Big East play without any of their three goalies, so they’ll either have to stick with McCarthy or find someone from the club team. It helps that they have six days to figure it out before traveling to Creighton on Thursday but regardless, it’s a bad situation to be in.

“Defend like heck right now,” Rodriguez said.

Even if McCarthy didn’t look like vintage Alyssa Naeher or Steph Labbé in her first 45 between the pipes, she held her own considering her lack of experience. And if she’s called on to be the goalie for the foreseeable future, she likes her chances.

“I’d say I got maybe a seven out of 10,” she said of her performance. “We’re gonna get up there.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog