It was a tale of two halves for the UConn women’s soccer team, as the Huskies (6-6-3) defeated Houston, 3-2 in overtime, on a slippery and humid Sunday afternoon, dealing the Cougars (5-8-1) their fifth-straight loss.
“We’re making things difficult on ourselves, this game should’ve been over in the first half,” said a frustrated but contented head coach Len Tsantiris after the game. “But we also showed some character. We won the game, and that’s the bottom line.”
The opening ten minutes was all UConn. Three minutes in, junior Vivien Beil dribbled through the defense and left a great ball for sophomore Erin Spillane, but a Houston defender narrowly beat her to the ball. Freshmen Yamilee Eveillard and Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky each had open looks but couldn’t pull the trigger.
Despite the Huskies’ early dominance, it was the Cougars who struck first. In the fifteenth minute, Houston’s Lauren Flowers gathered the ball around midfield and showed surprising acceleration, bursting through the UConn defense before threading a pass to Jazmin Grant who slotted a shot past Huskies goalie Courtney Hofer.
In the twentieth minute, the Huskies answered. Spillane found Beil waiting just onside, who had only the goalie to beat. Beil shot, but Houston keeper Rachel Estopare made a difficult save across her body, and seemed to stifle the opportunity. Spillane, however, had followed the play and was perfectly positioned for the rebound, took a touch and finished into the back corner of the Cougars net to tie the game at one goal apiece.
Four minutes later, UConn seized the lead on junior Elena Santos’ first goal of the season. Once again, it was Beil who was the catalyst, finding Santos with a defender hot on her heels. Santos kept the defender at bay and shot across her body on a difficult angle, and beat the Houston keeper, giving the Huskies a 2-1 lead, with an assist to Beil.
UConn freshman Paige Liebel made a great sliding deflection in the box with under five minutes to play in the half to preserve the lead, and the scoreboard read 2-1 as the teams regrouped at the half. The Huskies held a 10-2 advantage in shots. The Cougars, however, quickly flipped the script in the second half.
Houston’s Estopare made a pair of impressive saves at the 55’ mark to keep the deficit at one. The first came on an uncontested look from Santos which went right into the body of Estopare, followed by a leaping save on the rebound shot. These saves appeared to give the Cougars a much-needed confidence boost, and from that point on, Houston took control.
“We lost confidence, and then we don’t work as hard, and we get the other team in the game,” commented Tsantiris, who also said that UConn’s match against SMU on Friday took a large physical and mental toll on the team.
In the 70th minute, Houston equalized, and it was Grant once again. The Cougars pressured Hofer, forcing her to leave her line and attack the ball. The shot, however, was blocked by the Huskies defense, and the rebound settled right at the feet of Grant. With Hofer out of position, Grant easily beat her to even the score at 2-2.
The remainder of the half was scoreless as the Huskies clung to the tie, and only barely. Houston applied pressure throughout the second half, and UConn failed to generate many chances. The Cougars out-shot the Huskies 14-6 in the second half, but like UConn in the first half, Houston would regret not capitalizing on those opportunities.
Overtime could not come soon enough for the Huskies, and it did not last long. After regrouping at the end of the regulation, UConn did not waste any time. Less than two minutes into overtime, the Huskies earned a corner kick. Beil took the kick, curling a well-placed ball into the box, where senior Sabrina Toole was waiting. Toole headed it into the back of net as the UConn bench and fans erupted, giving the Huskies a walkoff 3-2 win.
“Vivi played it near the near-post, I jumped up, and had to put it in. If I missed, I would’ve had to run all the way back,” joked Toole after the victory.
The game-winner was Toole’s second of the season, and third goal overall. Beil was the offensive spark all game, recording two assists to add to her team-leading five on the season, and the only other UConn goal came on a rebound off her shot. Eveillard, who had been UConn’s hottest threat as of late, was largely neutralized, and looked slightly hobbled in the second half. In net, Hofer notched three saves and moved to a 4-2 record in a UConn uniform.
“This weekend was very good for us, even though nothing was easy,” said Tsantiris.
UConn is now 4-2 in conference play, good for fifth place in American Athletic Conference standings. The Huskies will look to move above .500 for the first time this season next time out, but will have perhaps their toughest test yet. They’ll travel to Orlando to take on UCF, who are currently ranked seventh in the nation in RPI, and are undefeated in conference play. The Huskies will look to change that on Thursday.