Jeff Jacobs: UConn Soccer’s Chance For Glory Slips Away – Hartford Courant
These are the kinds of October nights that can help define soccer seasons. These are the kinds of early October nights that present a program looking to regain some of its glory with an enormous opportunity.
Yet these also are not the kind of midseason nights that demand immediate victory.
“I’d say probably they are the best team in the country,” coach Ray Reid said after UConn fell, 3-2, to Maryland at Joe Morrone Stadium. “I don’t think there is anybody in college soccer who has as many weapons as they do.”
As the years have passed, as the economics of major college sports push, push, push the attention toward football and basketball, there remain few prouder programs in Connecticut than UConn soccer.
Morrone and Reid have brought national championships and national attention to Storrs. Yet after advancing to the NCAA Tournament 17 successive seasons, the Huskies also have missed the NCAAs two of the past three years. This is a young team, but there’s talent and an October night like this presents an important measuring stick. Not only in terms of a W or L, but what it means for the rest of the AAC Conference season and the fight to get into the national tournament.
“We scheduled this game to get stretched out a little bit,” said Reid, whose team is 5-3-2. “We scheduled Georgetown and Notre Dame [a loss and a tie] and I think we saw early on tonight we had trouble keeping up with the pace.
“Then we started to play a little bit. In the second half, I thought we were the better team. But we gave away two bad goals. Still, the whole idea was to use this as an exercise to help us get ready for the remaining nine games.”
The Terrapins entered Monday night ranked No. 1 in the Soccer America Men’s Top 25 rankings. They are third in the United Soccer Coaches Poll. Territorially, creatively, the pace, Maryland came out playing serious soccer. Yes, they could be national champions.
“The first 15 minutes we were kind of chasing — tempo,” Reid said. “No excuses here, but they get 15 of these games in the Big Ten. We don’t. When we got used to the tempo, the guys did a good job.”
Goalkeeper Scott Levene entered his 62nd consecutive start riding three successive shutouts. Through 871:27 the redshirt senior from Stamford had only allowed only five total goals for a 0.52 average.
This was not a shutout kind of night.
Maryland is as skilled as advertised. There was a reason to fear this version of the turtle. The first goal at 26:27 ended up being too easy for Eryk Williamson. Off a wild rebound, Williamson was alone from the inner box and he buried it into the left corner.
Reid immediately inserted Niko Petridis. The sophomore from Norwalk is a hoot to watch, a bolt of energy, microwave futbol. He made a difference. Petridis’ pass to Cheikh Coley in the box drew the penalty. Blaise Tohou-N’Gague, who sent Petridis flying in with a pass, took care of the penalty kick. It was tied at 1 at the half.
“Now our guys get energized,” Reid said. “Niko is an injection. He’s the sixth man in basketball. He’s the Energizer Bunny. He may not like that from an ego standpoint, but I’ll be honest and this is not a knock at him, I think it’s easier for him to come into the game than it is to start the game.
“He hasn’t started since Temple, but if he’s honest with me, Temple, Providence, Tulsa, Maryland, his past four games have been his four best performances.”
Two goals, two assists and all over the place on Monday …
“He has been fantastic for us,” Reid said.
“[Coming off the bench] doesn’t really bother me too much, whatever is best for the team,” Petridis said. “It has been working. I’m not going to complain about it.”
UConn’s last game against a No. 1 team was at Notre Dame in 2016, a 1-0 double-overtime loss. In 2013, UConn beat No. 1 UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. This would be the third time in the past five years that a Top Ten team played at Morrone. Notre Dame was here in 2012, St. Louis in 2013. So it was a special kind of soccer night and 4,160 showed up for it.
So did the Huskies to start the second half. They generated pace. They connected on passes. The night of opportunity suddenly looked ripe. Against another team, UConn strikes with a late goal. Not this night.
“Ironically, they maybe should be up 2-0 at half, but we’re probably the better team in the second half and they get two goals,” Reid said. “That’s soccer. We gave away two horrific goals.”
An entry pass from Sebastian Elney sprung Jake Rozhansky for the go-ahead goal at 54:49.
“Nick Apostol was over-dribbling and the center backs were nowhere to be found,” Reid said.
Junior Abdou Mbacke Thiam is UConn’s most dynamic scoring threat. Down 2-1 in the 57th minute, UConn would have a terrific scoring opportunity. Thiam spun, shot and Dayne St. Clair answered with his best stop.
“I think the ball is going in,” Reid said. “The keeper makes a big-time save.”
Nine minutes later, DJ Reeves, set up by Williamson, buried a shot inside the left post. It was 3-1. It was over, but then it wasn’t. With 2:54 left, Apostol picked off a pass and scored to cut the lead to one.
“Their second goal, I got caught over-dribbling, obviously I was a bit disappointed, they countered and scored,” Apostol said. “I knew I had to redeem myself.”
“We showed a lot of heart,” Petridis said.
No, the Huskies didn’t tie it. They didn’t win. Yet there was an opportunity found on this night, something that can define this season in November.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Reid said. “I think we’re in the right direction. We needed this. This is our fourth game in 10 nights. They didn’t fatigue. Hopefully this makes us a little better, a little tougher. We had a great mentality. We have a brand new team. We had four guys playing who played last year. We’re playing four freshmen and three sophomores. It takes some time. I knew tonight wouldn’t be easy. The guys competed hard.
“It’s never good to lose. I want to win. I’m a winner. But tonight served its purpose.”