In an unconventional addition to its schedule, the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team came from behind to beat the University of Maine at Fort Kent Bengals by a score of 2-1.
The game was a midseason inclusion, coming in the wake of the team’s scheduled game against Dartmouth on Sept. 20 being canceled earlier that week. The Bengals, playing not for the NCAA but the United States College Athletic Association, entered the game scalding hot. They won their last 10 games by a combined score of 35-5, and brought that energy to this game as well. As a sure underdog, they had nothing to lose, while the idea of a non-Division I opponent likely contributed to UConn starting the game flat-footed.
It didn’t take long for the Bengals to take the advantage. Less than five minutes into the game, UMFK earned a free kick from the far side of the 18-yard box. After the ensuing cross bounced around the box, Damian Jones finished it off by placing the ball past freshman Jayden Hibbert in net.
The nightmare continued for the Huskies, who continued to get peppered with shots and offensive pressure from the Bengals the rest of the half. UMFK ended the half with four shots, three off-target. UConn worked its way into the opposing end of the field on a few occasions, but got nowhere. By the end of 45 minutes, the team had four offside offenses, zero corners and zero shots. The Bengals’ play style included lots of team movement in bunches, making it hard for the Huskies to maintain possession of the ball to do any real attacking.
Connecticut came out much stronger to start the second period, appearing more energized than before. The Huskies put more pressure on the Bengals while maintaining a firm grip on possession, stringing together more opportunities. The culmination of their adjustment came in the 63rd minute, when an inside pass from Bateson Pierce set up Okem Chime for a 1-on-1 opportunity with UMFK goalie John Amoah. Chime took one touch to his right, then fired one in to tie the game at one apiece.
From then on, it was only a matter of time until the home team scored again. With 12 minutes to play in the contest, the Huskies earned a corner kick, which they took quickly, passing it short instead of crossing it. The cross came a few seconds later off the foot of Ben Dukes. All Chime had to do this time was flick it off the top of his head, taking new goalkeeper Shamar Jamison by surprise. Jamison got a hand on it, but the ball sailed into the net to give UConn the lead for good in the 2-1 victory.
One of the Bengals’ best opportunities of the half came a few minutes after Chime’s first goal, when Ronaldo Watson took a free kick from far outside the 18-yard box that was barely reached by the outstretched hands of Hibbert. The ball looked to be perfectly placed, headed towards the far corner of the net. UMFK also made a last-minute push, but the Huskies were able to shut down the Bengals’ hopes of a tie.
One interesting note from this game was the amount of injury stoppages from the visiting team. On several occasions, time had to be called to remedy Bengals players, who all went down with cramping.
Huskies head coach Chris Gbandi took advantage of this unique USCAA opportunity to give some of his guys that don’t typically see the pitch a little more playing time. Connecticut’s Starting XI consisted of 11 new starters compared to their last contest against Seton Hall. What’s more, out of those 11, only two saw any playing time at all in that game.
“I thought it was a good performance,” said Gbandi. “It was a game we scheduled to try to get our second group some opportunities and give a lot of credit to [UMFK], ‘cause they looked like they were ready to go. For us to actually come back down a goal at half I think shows the character of the group. I’m super happy with the performance.”
With the win, UConn rises to 4-6-1 on the year. Up next for the Huskies is a trip to Wisconsin this weekend, where they will look to bring their momentum into a matchup with the Marquette Golden Eagles on Saturday night.