Men's soccer: Young players shine as Huskies win again

Senior co-captain Kwame Awuah dribbles by an Iona defender in UConn's season opening 3-1 victory at Morrone Stadium on Aug. 26, 2016. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

The UConn men’s soccer team won their second game in three days, defeating the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks 2-0. The Huskies’ young players really shined in a game in which it was clear who the better team was, especially given that it is only the Mavericks second year as a Division I program.

Freshman winger Niko Petridis created early pressure in the third minute on the goalkeeper, chasing down a back pass that nearly resulted in another early goal for the Huskies. Petridis wasn’t the only young performer for the team, as head coach Ray Reid was thrilled with the play of his younger players.

“Petridis, (Alex) Kao, (Jacob) Hauser, Munir (Saleh), and you haven’t seen Duran Lee (a transfer) yet, wait ‘til you see this guy play,” Reid said. “All five of the new guys are just what we needed and just what we wanted, and they’re great kids.”

Omaha threatened to score in the 11th minute as UConn made a mess of clearing the ball. Simen Olafsen got a boot to the head in the mess resulting in a cut just above his eye. The training staff wrapped up his head and he was back in the game within four minutes.

The Huskies would earn a penalty kick in the 14th minute as Jake Nerwinski found Petridis on a through ball down the wing. Petridis then crossed the ball into forward Abdou Mbacke Thiam, who was brought down in the box. Thiam could not convert, however, as the Mavericks’ goalkeeper Joseph Ghitis made a good save to keep the game level.

UConn had a flurry of chances towards the end of the first half, but to no avail, ending the period up 7-1 in shots but level on the scoreboard.

“I just thought our guys were tough tonight,” said Reid. “First half we played some really good soccer. A little unfortunate (to not score). Second half, game got a little chippier, but our guys fought and battled through it and I’ll be honest, I’m really proud.”

UConn substitute Kao came into the game in a critical moment early in the second half when the game was beginning to get a little messy, and really solidified the play of the defense from the holding midfielder position. Coach Reid couldn’t speak more highly of Kao after the game

“He (Kao) is just a ball winner, he’s a tough guy, he cleans things up, he’s relentless, he’s a driven kid, he just wears it on his sleeve,” Reid said.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game, so we knew we had to come hard in the second half,” said Kao. “We were playing at home so there was no way we were going to sit back and let them take the game. Coming off the bench, my job was first to be defensively solid and then as soon as we got a breakdown we go quickly on the counter.”

The Huskies earned a second penalty kick opportunity in the 67th minute following a handball on an Awuah shot. Thiam was given the chance at redemption and he earned it, beating the goalie top shelf and giving UConn the 1-0 lead.

“To have two penalty kicks in one game is not easy,” said Thiam. “And I missed the first one, but mentally, I believe I am good. I had to change my attitude (after the first one). That’s why I took the second one, and I did what I had to do.”

The Huskies really started to take control late in the game, dominating possession at times, and still massively ahead in the shots department. UConn would put the game out of reach with their second late insurance goal on the weekend, making it 2-0.

Kao was again the difference, winning the ball with a perfect tackle in center midfield and finding Awuah. Awuah then sent a delightful chip in the path of Petridis, who dribbled past the keeper and put in the easy finish for his first career goal.
“You know I thought as a team, we were really going at them the whole game, and I knew eventually that second goal was going to come,” Petridis said. “It was just a matter of time and Alex (Kao) made a good tackle and Kwame (Awuah) put a good ball over the top and I just tried to keep my composure and finish off the game.”

A fight nearly broke out in the dying embers of the game as tensions were rising over a foul call on the wing, but that would be the last notable event of the game, as the Huskies advanced to 2-0 on the young season.

The Huskies will face off against Louisville next Friday at home in hopes of maintaining this hot start to the year.