For the first time since 2006, UConn women’s soccer is the preseason favorite to win its conference.
Being 12 years removed from their last appearance in the Women’s College Cup, head coach Len Tsantiris and his team have high hopes that this season could mark the return of the program to college soccer’s final four.
The No. 25 Huskies (X-X-X) begin their 2015 campaign boasting an offensive powerhouse already showing its strength and one of the premier goalkeepers in Division I women’s soccer. Coaches in the American Athletic Conference narrowly picked UConn as the favorite to win the regular season, though rivals UCF and South Florida were not far behind. For a program in a mid-major conference, UConn continues to defy the odds with consistent national success heading into Tsantiris’ 35th season at the helm.
With 29 NCAA Tournament appearances and seven trips to the Women’s College Cup in his first 34 seasons, Tsantiris and his teams are rarely ever considered out of the running. This season is no exception.
Three of Tsantiris’ top four offensive players are returning from a 2014 season that produced a 14-5-5 record, a conference tournament title and the No. 19 RPI in the country. Only a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to No. 8 Penn State in the NCAA Tournament second round diminished the extent of the team’s accomplishments.
With a veteran coaching staff and nearly all key players returning, UConn has the momentum to win a conference championship and finish the 2015 season on an NCAA Tournament run.
Leading the charge for the Huskies is junior forward Rachel Hill, who is poised to have one of most successful offensive seasons in program history. Her 16 goals as a sophomore sits at No. 11 all-time for goals scored in a single season by any UConn player. After scoring [X] goals in the first two games of 2015, she continues to position herself to contend for both single-season and career goal-scoring records at UConn.
As the 2014 AAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year and this season’s sole preseason favorite for the same award, Hill is the cornerstone of Huskies’ offense.
“Rachel is a player that’s not going to give up,” Tsantiris said. “She earns what she gets. … She fights for everything.”
Hill is confident this season’s team is better than the 2014 squad, strong enough to once again win the AAC championship and “hopefully go further” in the NCAA Tournament. With the pressure Hill and the Huskies’ front line threaten to mount, the team certainly has the potential.
Aggressiveness on the offensive side of the ball was evident early in UConn’s season-opening win over Colgate, where the Huskies recorded four goals on 30 shots. Hill, who scored two of the goals, took no credit for herself, choosing instead to praise her teammates’ efforts to give her open looks inside the box. The teamwork produced meaningful results, as every UConn forward and midfielder mustered at least one shot in the game.
The Huskies are equally as confident in their defensive abilities. Junior goalkeeper Emily Armstrong allowed just 0.79 goals per game as a sophomore, sharing time in the goal with now-senior goalkeeper Allison Saucier in a half-by-half platoon effort.
This season, however, Tsantiris said the starting job is Armstrong’s to lose, as Saucier’s status remains “week-to-week” while she recovers from minor injuries that continue to nag her from the 2014 season.
Armstrong has allowed [X] goals in her first two outings of the season with [X] saves.
A Look at the Schedule
The Huskies’ 2015 schedule is not nearly as challenging as it has been in the past few seasons – something UConn will have to be mindful of when working to maintain a strong RPI. The most consequential game on paper is a road matchup with No. 24 Rutgers in mid-September.
While not nearly as significant as it has been in past years, UConn will face former Big East rival Syracuse on Sept. 3 in Storrs. The Orange are coming off a 5-10-4 season and have struggled since moving to the ACC two years ago.
South Florida and UCF threaten to upset the Huskies’ bid to earn consecutive conference titles, with both of these Sunshine State teams receiving votes in the first national rankings of 2015. Even more threatening for UConn, though, is that these two crucial games will be played on the road – back-to-back – as the first two conference matchups of the season.
In short, the AAC standings will be meaningfully affected in the first weekend of competition.
The Huskies will also face Memphis and Tulsa in road games, but have their games against Temple, East Carolina, Cincinnati and Houston at home. UConn ends its regular season against SMU in Storrs on Oct. 25.
While the team returns a core of veteran players, seven freshmen and one transfer joined the Huskies in the offseason. Many have already seen minutes on the field. Two freshmen, forward Kim Urbanek and defender Liane Keegans, started against Colgate.
During a preseason interview, Tsantiris hailed Urbanek as one of the team’s more significant additions, lowering his voice to a whisper as if sharing the team’s most tightly kept secret:
“She’s a really good player.”
In addition, UConn received valuable minutes off the bench in the Colgate game from Syracuse transfer Maddie Damm, who has two years of eligibility with the Huskies. She scored one goal on five attempts – all of which had a realistic chance of landing in the back of the net. As Tsantiris puts it, “She’s got a wicked shot.”
Inside the Offense
Most of UConn’s offensive sets in preseason and early regular season games have followed a consistent approach, setting up in the midfield and driving down along one of the wings to get a clean pass inside the box.
Tsantiris started six true forwards against Colgate, so the strategic variations were numerous. Options ranged from senior forward Liana Hinds, who has a tendency to drive with more speed and aggression down the wing, to senior forward Samantha McGuire, who relies more on maneuverability to work her way through defenders before reaching the edge of the box. The game plan is to place a pass from just outside the box in front of the goal, where Hill or junior forward Stephanie Ribeiro are ideally waiting to finish with a shot.
“(The wings) all work together to get the ball, to have a good cross opportunity,” Hill said. “They know that we’ll have runners in box, so they always get it off.”
The tactic produced Ribeiro’s two goals in a 4-0 win against Montreal in the preseason and Hill’s two goals in a 4-1 win over Colgate to open the regular season.