It is tough being a first-year head coach. It is even harder when you lose two of your most formidable players to the same injury, the despoiling ACL tear. When those two players account for 40 percent of your scoring last year (45 percent when you only include those expected to return), you can see how things may get dicey.
UConn women’s soccer has unquestionably struggled this season. At 2-11, they have already set the record for losses in program history and it is the first time they have reached double-digit defeats since 2010. The team is combatting many woes, including scoring, in which the Huskies rank second to last in the American Conference with 15 goals, or 1.15 per game. That puts them on pace for just less than 21 goals after scoring 26 a season ago. The Huskies are also last in the conference in shots.
That’s what happens without two of your preeminent playmakers. The Huskies greatest losses this year may have come before the games even started.
“On the field, they have personality out there. They have the leadership qualities that we’re missing. You get the ball to them and they can make things happen single handedly,” head coach Margaret Rodriguez said. She is speaking about Kess Elmore and Vivien Beil, whose offseason injuries have become an unfortunate hindrance in both their careers and UConn’s pursuit of success.
Sophomore forward Kess Elmore was first. In the Huskies’ very first practice session last semester, the Liverpool, England, native was dribbling the ball, tackled from behind, and as she went down, the ball, still under her foot, forced her knee to shift inwards. The tear quickly wrapped up her spring practice and fall season.
Senior Vivien Beil was next. In a cruel turn of fate, Beil, who actually drove Elmore to get her MRI after the initial injury, would suffer her own torn ligament while home in Germany for the summer. She was playing some fun small sided games with a local team.
“I was dribbling with a lot of speed inside and I just planted and played the ball over to my left leg,” Beil said. “It just made a weird noise.” Beil was able to walk off under her own volition, but she knew something was wrong immediately.
After she got her diagnosis, Elmore was one of the first people Beil called.
“Obviously, I tore mine first but she (Beil) was my basically my backbone,” Elmore said. “She helped me through all of it. So when she called me from Germany and told me she had done the same to hers, it was heartbreaking.”
Despite the distance between them, the pair FaceTimed consistently and now that they’re back together at UConn, they continue to build each other up. Talking to each other helps, but so does tagging each other in motivational things they see or post on Instagram, Elmore said. Beil remembers commiserating about the awful first couple weeks that come post-surgery.
The duo both began rehab and they have used this shared experience to bond. While Beil was in Germany, Elmore was in Storrs for summer sessions working out and getting her strength back. Skills that seem basic, such as jumping or being able to turn, had to be regained.
To understand the Huskies’ deficiency in offensive output, you must understand what was taken from them in Beil and Elmore.
Beil led the way last year with six goals and six assists after starting all 19 games for the Huskies. A former Maine Black Bear, she transferred to Storrs after two years in Orono, including being the America East rookie of the year in 2015 and two first team All-Conference appearances. Unaware of her injury, the cadre of coaches in the American selected her to the Pre-season All-Conference team this fall.
Elmore trails Beil in accolades to be certain, but in only one year was second team All-Conference, first team All-Rookie in only 16 matches; starting 10. Her four goals and assist gave her nine points.
“They’re great players; they’re quality. Kess is dynamic out there with her runs on the ball and off the ball. She can finish,” Rodriguez said. “Vivien is our engine. We can put her anywhere on the field and she’s going to be one of the best players out there. She’s the glue.”
Rodriguez looks at her squad and can see a lacking that not-so-coincidentally matches what they bring to the table. “Both their leadership qualities and their abilities on the ball and off the ball are huge and that’s what we’re missing right now,” she said.
However, all is not lost in 2018. At this stage of her rehab, Elmore is back into soccer activities in a non-contact capacity but will still redshirt the season.
Beil is further behind. She has only started running again within the past two weeks which was a big step. She can get a couple touches in by juggling or other little things but is rehabbing every single day. Conditioning on the exercise bike or in the pool make up a big portion of her rehabilitation. Strengthening the quads and hamstrings is a focus as well.
They still are in the weight room with the team; their workouts just take longer meaning they get to spend extra time together.
On top of practicing, Rodriguez has the tandem doing opponent scouting during the games and trying to impart wisdom to their teammates, collectively and individually. Elmore says she tries to give as much advice as she can off the field.
“The coaches have us look at the opponents,” Beil said. “What formation are they playing, what are their strengths and weaknesses, how can we play better against them.”
“It’s just been a really good learning experience,” Elmore said. “Actually, being able to step back and not being so involved in the game.”
To salvage something from their injuries, the couple needs this learning to benefit them in the future.
“Kess needed to learn a little bit and I think she is learning a lot,” Rodriguez said. “They’re both learning how we can connect better out of the midfield and helping being leaders on the bench to individual players.”
“I’m really close to DK on the team and I’ll talk her through stuff or we’ll just practice repeated shooting,” Elmore said. DK is sophomore midfielder Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky, who is tied with Elena Santos at four goals as the main source of output for UConn. “The strikers completely have the ability. It’s just finding the moments and combining with each other in those moments.”
“You just got to take chances,” Beil said. “We don’t have that many chances, so we have to capitalize on them, which is easier said than done obviously, but I feel like sometimes we are not opportunistic enough in the final third. People don’t have that joy anymore because we are afraid of losing it (possession) again and having to run all the way back.”
The team sorely misses them on the field and the feeling is mutual. The duo has no plans of relenting, however. They have chosen to make the most of the situation they are in together. Recovering from an ACL tear takes time and strength and the plan is for them to be better for it. Come next fall, when Beil and Elmore return, the Huskies will again be a force to be reckoned with.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.