Hello all, and welcome back to Husky History, a column focusing on one accomplished UConn athlete per week. Each article should detail the athlete’s accolades at Connecticut, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level.
This week’s Husky History focuses on men’s soccer legend Chris Gbandi. While many know him now as the newest head coach of the UConn men’s soccer team, he’s had an incredible athletic career to bring him to his current stage of life.
Gbandi grew up in Liberia, a country in West Africa. He looked up to his father, who played semi-pro soccer there until both of his parents left for a new life in Houston when Gbandi was five years old. While living with his grandparents and his brother for another five years, Gbandi worked on his craft, developing soccer skills alongside his uncle. At 10 years old, the Liberian native was reunited in Houston with his parents, where he picked up right where he left off playing his favorite game with his father.
“I give a lot of credit to my father,” said Gbandi. “He always said, ‘You have to have different dimensions to your game. There are times you’re going to find someone who’s as fast as you; you’re going to have to find another way to beat them with skill or technique.’”
Growing up in Texas, Gbandi played football in the fall and soccer in the winter, since it’s warm enough year-round to separate the two sports. He was a cornerback and kicker at Cypress Falls High, doing well enough to receive a scholarship at Louisiana State University to play in the powerhouse SEC conference. But, still excelling at soccer, Gbandi choosing to committing to his first love at UConn, another historic program where he was projected to get more playing time from the jump.
Playing defense, Gbandi excelled early in Storrs, making an impact on a team that would go on to win four straight Big East regular season titles in his four years of eligibility from 1998-2001. In that span, UConn boasted a 72-17-3 record — a 79.9 winning percentage. Furthermore, the Huskies made the NCAA Tournament every year with Gbandi anchoring the defense. His speed and agility helped lock down defenders, but also added an extra boost on offense, as Gbandi added 13 goals and 11 assists almost through his first three seasons (per the only available data, a Hartford Courant article).
The team saw more massive successes during Gbandi’s tenure, winning the Big East Tournament in 1999 and appearing in the Final Four in both 1999 and 2000, bringing home the school’s most recent NCAA Championship for men’s soccer in 2000. During that historic run, the star defender was named one of two of the tournament’s Most Outstanding Players.
Besides that esteemed honor, Gbandi brought home several other individual awards, including four All-Big East First Team nods, three All-American selections and the honor of Big East Defender of the Year three times. He was a finalist for the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top male player, winning the award in 2000.
After his time in Storrs, it was time to go professional. Gbandi was selected first overall in the MLS Superdraft by the Dallas Burn, later to become FC Dallas. He enjoyed an eight-year club career, staying in Dallas from 2002-2008, and transferring to the Norwegian club FK Haugesund for two years. Gbandi returned to the U.S. in 2010 to end his career with a Division 2 squad. In the MLS, he totaled 111 appearances, scoring three goals out of the backfield.
Gbandi also spent some time playing international soccer, opting to join the Liberian team in the World Cup qualifiers in 2004. He made one appearance.
After his playing career was over, the UConn legend decided to come home – this time as an assistant under his former coach Ray Reid. After a full two seasons of assistance in 2011, Gbandi took his talents to Holy Cross from 2012-2014 and Dartmouth from 2015-2016, also as an assistant coach. After two straight NCAA Tournament appearances (and wins) from the Big Green, the assistant got his big break, and accepted an offer to be a head coach at Northeastern University in Boston.
Taking a team that won just three matches in 2015, Gbandi got the Huskies to an 11-6-2 record in 2021, recording the fifth-most wins in a season in program history. The No. 2 seed that Northeastern received in the CAA Championship tied with a program best. The turnaround success of a program like NU was enough for UConn athletic director David Benedict to look to Gbandi to replace the legendary Reid this offseason, who retired to spend more time with his parents.
“Chris Gbandi is one of the finest players in the history of our soccer program,” said Benedict. “But that ability pales in comparison to his caliber as a person and leader of young men. Our men’s soccer program is rich in tradition, and a source of pride for our university community and the state of Connecticut. UConn soccer is equipped for success, and Chris is the right man to lead us into a bright future.”
The Huskies are coming off of a 7-7-1 year, but have a very bright future ahead of them. Besides bringing in Gbandi, UConn boasts a lot of talented underclassmen, including Mateo Leveque, who won Big East Freshman of the Year this past season. It will be interesting to see how Gbandi takes on this next chapter of his career.
“This is certainly a dream come true for me to be given the opportunity to return to my alma mater and to build upon the legacy that my mentor Ray Reid has established,” said Gbandi. “UConn soccer has a rich history of success, and my goal is to recruit and develop the best student-athletes at a world-class institution that will ultimately bring another national championship to Storrs.”