In the first five years of Margaret Rodriguez’s tenure at UConn, a running joke had developed: The Huskies, inevitably, were going to be a young team.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though — they weren’t losing waves of players to the transfer portal each offseason that needed to be replaced with freshmen. Instead, those underclassmen often earned minutes over the more experienced players.
At long last, that’s no longer the case. UConn’s starting 11 will feature four fifth-years — Jackie Harnett, Cara Jordan, Jessica Mazo and Emma Zaccagnini — two four-year starters in center back Lucy Cappadona and goalkeeper Kaitlyn Mahoney, and likely four other upperclassmen depending on who Rodriguez selects for a given game. The only underclassman who’s expected to start is striker Chioma Okafor — and she led the team with six goals last season anyways.
The Huskies will be as veteran-laden as they come.
“We’re not counting on youth to come in and impact,” Rodriguez said. “They’re only going to enhance what we do.”
UConn has been a stout defensive team for three consecutive seasons now. During the COVID-impacted 2020-21 campaign (played in the spring instead of the fall), the Huskies pitched eight shutouts in 12 contests and never allowed more than two goals. Last season, they allowed three goals just once — to No. 4 South Carolina, two of which came after the 80th minute.
The defensive foundation is strong with Cappadona paired next to Harnett in the middle of the backline, Mazo and junior Sophie McCarthy as the deep-lying midfielders and Mahoney in goal. Kelly Monaco — a transfer from Indiana — and junior Laci Lewis started at outside back in UConn’s first exhibition against Fairfield, though senior Chloe Landers should factor in at one of the spots as well after leading the team in minutes last season.
For the Huskies, it all starts with keeping the ball out of the back of the net.
“Not a lot of goals are scored so it takes one to seal the game,” Rodriguez said. “The biggest, most important piece is to not allow any goals in.”
A good defense can only get UConn so far, though. The team has struggled to consistently score goals — a product of both a weak midfield at times and a lack of dangerous players up top — which has put a cap on its potential. The Huskies haven’t had a double-digit goal scorer since the days of Rachel Hill and Steph Ribeiro in 2016 — which happens to be the last time they made the NCAA Tournament.
Luckily, there’s no one better equipped to change that than Okafor. The sophomore’s athleticism is off the charts thanks to a rare combination of speed, quickness and strength, which gives her as high of a ceiling as any player who’s come through the program in recent years.
“You see Chi’s growth literally day by day,” Rodriguez said. “She is one of the most coachable players I’ve ever had. I can tell her ‘Hey, next time take her to your left.’ Boom, she’s immediately applying it. We knew she was going to be a little raw technically, tactically and to where she is (now) — this spring we saw huge strides with her. We changed our formation a little bit to allow her a little bit more freedom and she reads that space better than any kid I’ve had so far in this program.”
While Okafor will be the focal point of the offense, it won’t all fall on her shoulders. Zaccagnini will pull the strings from the 10 (or center attacking mid) — a change from her usual spot on defense.
“I want her a little bit more opportunistic,” Rodriguez said of the fifth-year from Watertown, Connecticut. “She sees the game and she can slip Chi in well.”
On the wings, Jordan’s speed makes her dangerous in space and when healthy, she’s typically been one of UConn’s better chance creators. Abbey Jones is the expected starter on the other side.
“We have weapons on top,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just a matter of finding our rhythm.”
Off the bench, freshman Lexi Taylor scored in both preseason games while on the wing while Lydia LeBlanc — who earned a call-up to the US U17 national team in 2022 — and Anaya Johnson both impressed in their unofficial debuts in the midfield. Joyce Rider will help out in the middle of the field, too.
When the NCAA Tournament started in 1982, UConn made the first 26. Prior to 2016, it failed to make the field just four times.
It’s now been six years since the Huskies were last tournament-bound.
This rebuild was always going to take time. Even in the mid-2010s when UConn made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, it never went farther than the Sweet Sixteen — a far cry for a program that’s reached seven College Cups and went to at least the Elite Eight every season between 1994-2003. Rodriguez had plenty of work to do when she took over for the legendary Len Tsantiris in 2017.
But while there’s no doubt the Huskies have steadily improved over the past six years, at some point the breakthrough has to come. Rodriguez knows that.
“Understand I’m coming from history. I’m coming from standards in the program for myself as a player (from 1995-98) and as an alum,” the coach said. “So our goal is not satisfied if we just make the Big East Tournament. We want to be in contention to make deep runs in the into the NCAAs and I’m not setting my sights short by just being happy with we developed and we have good soccer, right? We need results at the end of the day.”
UConn has the pieces — a strong core, lots of experience and a talented goal-scorer. Now, it’s a matter of putting it all together. The first test will come on Sunday evening when the Huskies host Boston University at Morrone Stadium in Storrs.