On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Storrs, Connecticut, the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team hosted the Xavier Musketeers for the final game of the regular season.
The result was not as pretty, as an early red card forced UConn to play with 10 players for a majority of the contest. The Musketeers took advantage of the extra player, defeating the Huskies 4-0.
With the loss, the Huskies officially finished this season with 12 points in conference play. Their performance throughout the season allowed Connecticut to clinch a spot in this year’s conference tournament as the No. 5 seed. They will travel to Queens, New York for a battle against the No. 4 St. John’s Red Storm in hopes of keeping their season alive and advancing to the next round of the tournament.
The Huskies were put to the test early when goalkeeper Jayden Hibbert was issued a red card in just the 22nd minute of the match. On the play, a Xavier player had entered a fast break with Hibbert being the only obstacle separating him from the goal. Hibbert stepped up to challenge the Xavier player and made an attempt to kick the ball away. In doing so, he made contact with the Xavier player’s ankle and sent him head over heels into a less than graceful fall on the ground.
Though it did not appear intentional, the officials felt enough evidence was present to warrant a red card for Hibbert, automatically ejecting him from the contest. It was a tough break for Connecticut, not only because Hibbert was fresh off of a recent hot streak that saw him claim Big East Goalkeeper of the Week last week, but the red card meant the Huskies would be forced to play a man down for the remaining 68 minutes of action. Clayton Knibbs entered the contest to replace Hibbert in the goal.
The Musketeers immediately took advantage of the extra player. On the ensuing penalty kick, Knibbs made a sprawling effort to knock away Xavier’s initial shot attempt. Makel Rasheed followed the miss for Xavier with a close-range rebound shot and stuck the ball in the back of the net. The score was Rasheed’s second of the year and gave the Musketeers an early 1-0 lead.
Despite being down a player, UConn was able to put pressure on the Xavier defense and managed a few looks throughout the first half. However, the team was unable to find points thanks largely to the effort of Jonny Mennell, who made a number of impressive stops in goal for the Musketeers. At the end of the first half, Xavier was hanging on to a one-goal lead.
The second half saw both teams turn up the intensity. Players from each side were hitting the ground as the defensive efforts were turned all the way up. Knibbs made a number of sprawling saves on Xavier’s chances to keep the score close, but the Musketeers were able to extend their lead off of a corner kick in the 64th minute. After the ball was volleyed into the UConn goalbox, it was batted in the air towards Xavier’s Michael Rogalski. Rogalski elevated and swung a powerful kick into the Huskies’ goal before the ball had a chance to return to the ground. Rogalski’s first goal of the season extended the Musketeer’s lead to 2-0.
Xavier didn’t wait long to make it a three-goal advantage. In the 68th minute, the Musketeers volleyed another corner kick into the Huskies’ goalbox. It appeared that UConn had successfully cleared the ball out of the box, but the ball had dribbled to the foot of Xavier’s Lotem Ben Dov just outside of the box. He launched a shot from afar and somehow managed to connect with the top-right corner of the net for the score. The impressive shot was placed perfectly and had so much power behind it that Connecticut’s defense hardly had time to react. It was the first goal of the season for Ben Dov and gave Xavier a commanding 3-0 lead.
The Musketeers weren’t done yet as the game reached the 76th minute. After Knibbs tried to clear the ball from the Connecticut goalbox, Xavier was able to regain possession on the Huskies’ half of the field. The ball ended up at the feet of Grayson Elmquist, who swerved between UConn defenders as he barreled towards the goal box. He rifled a shot from just outside the box and managed to squeeze it past Knibbs for yet another Xavier score. This was the first goal in Elmquist’s career and gave the away team a 4-0 lead that they would not relinquish.
Over the duration of the match, the Musketeers outshot the Huskies 11 to five, putting up seven shots on goal to the home team’s two. Connecticut had more saves than Xavier with three to their opponent’s two, and both teams attempted three corner kicks each. The Huskies were called for seven fouls while the Musketeers were called for three.
“I thought we played quite well throughout a quarter of the game and then the red card happened out of nowhere and all of a sudden we were chasing the game. It was a tough one,” head coach Chris Gbandi said after the loss. “I think if it was 11 players, it would have been a different result and we would have been able to limit their chances.”
The win allowed Xavier to clinch the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament. They finished as the top team in the Midwest Division.
The loss put a damper on what started as a day of celebration for the Huskies as they honored their graduating seniors with a pregame ceremony. Knibbs, Adil Iggoute, Jack Loura, Okem Chime, Kyle Briere, Tyler Fidrych and Guillaume Vacter were accompanied by their friends, families and teammates as they were honored for their contributions to Connecticut soccer over the years. Josh Morgan and Moussa Wade were recognized on Senior Day last year and received a shoutout after they both returned to the program this season.
The Huskies will look to right the ship when they travel to Queens for the first round of the Big East tournament on Saturday, Nov. 4. The game is set for 6 p.m. and will be played at Belson Stadium. Fans can catch the game on the Big East Digital Network.