The UConn men’s soccer team opened their regular season with a 3-1 victory over the Iona Gaels. Last year’s game against the Gaels got a little ugly, with a brawl nearly breaking out on the field and tons of fouls throughout the game. While this game had its fair share of fouls, the Huskies didn’t let the chippy play get in their heads, and made sure they sealed the win in the second half.
“It’s nice (to get the season started with a win),” head coach Ray Reid said. “We haven’t lost a lot of games since I got here, but half the games we lost have been opening night. We don’t start that well, that’s for sure. So as long as we’re healthy, we’ll take the W.”
“Of course, it is amazing for us to win the game,” Thiam said. “It was a better start than last year, where in the first game we tied. This year we have more positive guys, and we have more maturity.”
Reid had been preaching strong starts to the team the whole offseason and they managed to do just that, scoring a goal in the first minute of the game. After a bad giveaway by a Gaels’ defender, tri-captain Kwame Awuah was able to dissect the defense finding forward Abdou Mbacke Thiam for an easy finish to take a 1-0 lead just 57 seconds into the game.
Iona answered right back, however, scoring just two minutes later on a shot following a throw-in that caught goalkeeper Scott Levene off his line. A response like that could get most teams down, but the Huskies stayed focused and made sure to keep playing.
“You could see everyone, even in the hard moments, everyone’s staying positive and trying to grind through the game, that’s the most important thing,” Awuah said. “It disrupted us just a little bit, and we knew that the game was still to be played. It was 87 minutes left in the game and we knew we could come back with our home fans cheering us on.”
“Honestly, we all knew it was our first game of the season, so it’s not gonna be easy,” freshman midfielder Munir Saleh said. “We just said we got to do what we were doing and get another goal.”
As Saleh said, UConn responded to Iona’s goal fairly well, and they dictated play for the majority of the first half, creating several chances off of set pieces and on counter attacks as well, including a 25 yard blast from Dylan Greenberg that ended up being just wide of the goal.
Two highly touted freshmen started the game for UConn, the aforementioned Saleh, and Niko Petridis. Both had solid games, especially Saleh who got better and more comfortable as the game went on.
“At first, I was nervous of course, but as the game went on I just started getting more relaxed and relaxed, and I think as I get more games in, I’ll be even more relaxed and it’ll be easy for me to play,” Saleh said.
“Munir is a really good player. I played with him back in Canada,” Awuah said. “We’re very inviting, everybody welcomed him to make it easy for him to get comfortable with the rhythm and the passing and credit to him, he stepped in a hard situation and did really well.”
Junior midfielder Alex Sanchez would come on in the 30th minute for Petridis and he would make the difference just before the end of the half. With 18 seconds left in the first half, tri-captain Cheikh Stephane Coly gathered the ball at the top of the opposing box and found Sanchez, who took the shot first time. Although his shot was deflected, the ball snuck its way into the net, for a momentum-swinging goal just before the half.
There were very few real opportunities in the second half. Iona had early protests for a penalty kick as one of their players was taken down in the box, but it seemed as though he dove for the call.
The Huskies would score again in the 80th minute to clinch the game after tri-captain, Jake Nerwinski, dispossessed the Gaels defender on the right wing, and put in a nice cross that redshirt freshman Nkosi Burgess slotted in easily past the keeper to put the game out of reach at 3-1.
The Huskies’ strong start to the season should boost team morale and confidence and could be critical for the team’s success later in the season, but team leaders know they have to keep up the hard work if they want to go far this season.
“Coach Reid always tells us talent is good, but talent with hard work is what is going to win us games,” Awuah said.
Chris Hanna is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.