With two minutes left to play, head coach Len Tsantiris was mentally preparing for overtime against Houston Thursday night in Storrs. Tsantiris watched as his team battled for possession in the final 20 minutes, firing shot after shot that just would not land in the back of the net.
That all changed with 59 seconds left to play. Senior midfielder Samantha McGuire’s header off a perfectly placed free kick from freshman defender Heidi Druehl landed in the back of the net to give the Huskies the lead.
No. 11 UConn women’s soccer defeated Houston 1-0 on Thursday night, propelling the team into first place in the American Athletic Conference with one game remaining on the regular season schedule.
UConn (15-2-0, 7-1-0 American) has 21 points in conference play – two points ahead of second-place No. 18 South Florida. The Bulls play Friday night against UCF to stay in contention for the regular season conference championship. UConn would clinch the title in the event of a South Florida loss or tie.
However, a win for the Bulls against UCF would mean the Huskies have to defeat SMU in Storrs on Sunday in order to win the conference championship outright.
Tsantiris said UConn is not worried about any other team’s wins or losses in the final weekend of the regular season, as the Huskies still have complete control over their seed in the conference tournament with a win or a loss against SMU.
“We don’t care about what happens around us,” Tsantiris said. “We have to take care of our own business.”
Tireless defensive effort
For the fifth time in six games, UConn’s defense held its opponent scoreless. Houston found itself locked down at the midfield, only producing three shots and two corner kicks in the entire game.
Tsantiris credited the defense for stopping two particularly quick Houston forwards he believed could be a threat coming into the game. Despite the Huskies starting two freshmen on the backline, Tsantiris said the formula has been effective throughout the season.
“They work hard in practice,” Tsantiris said. “They push each other. It’s been good.”
Tsantiris also credited junior goalkeeper Emily Armstrong, who recorded her eighth clean sheet in 2015. He said her alertness on plays, particularly around the edge of the box, helped the team earn the win.
An off night for the offense
UConn finished the game with 16 shots, but still only managed a single goal.
It seemed like it just was not the Huskies’ night, with shots bouncing off the crossbar or sailing just over the crossbar. UConn even had a goal taken away on an offside call in the 84th minute that Tsantiris found questionable. Junior forward Rachel Hill headed in what appeared to be the game-winner, sending the crowd at Morrone Stadium into a frenzy, but it was promptly called off.
Despite the offensive setbacks Thursday night, Tsantiris has still seen significant progress from his frontline players. He said Hill, McGuire, senior forwards Andrea Plucenik and Liana Hinds have all contributed greatly to the team’s success this season. Tsantiris also said freshman forward Kim Urbanek is developing well, but that he needs to see more from junior forward Stephanie Ribeiro.
As a unit, the players on the offense have a lot of confidence in each other’s abilities.
“When you have Rachel Hill and Steph Ribeiro up top, you’re gonna see some crazy things happening,” McGuire said. “Other people are going to work off their work ethic.”
Team improvements over the season
Tsantiris said he finally believes his team is able to overcome mistakes in crucial situations.
The win over Houston proved this, according to Tsantiris. He said the offense stepped up the pressure in the second half to create the situation for a game-winning goal. This came as a direct response to a sluggish start in the first half with fewer quality shots.
“The fighting is there,” Tsantiris said. “We’ve been in games where we got problems, but we still overcame the problems. When we talk about October comes around, every game you play is the last game you’re going to play. Because, sure, when November comes around, you’ve got to be ready for that mentality.”
Houston’s abysmal record in conference play
Since joining the American Athletic Conference three years ago, Houston women’s soccer still has not won a single conference game. In fact, the Cougars own a 0-25-1 record all-time in The American, with the one draw coming against UConn last season.
Tsantiris said he believes Houston is “a good team,” despite its record in and out of conference play. He credited Houston’s players for continuing to pressure the Huskies late into the game.