The Coleumn: Resiliency the key to UConn men’s soccer’s success in 2023 

UConn Men’s soccer takes on Xavier at Marrone Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. The Huskies’ last regular season game ended in a loss of 0-4 to Xavier after goalkeeper Jayden Hibbert received a red card in the 22nd minute. Photo by Zach Moller/The Daily Campus.

Across four regular seasons with the UConn men’s soccer team, senior goalkeeper Kyle Briere appeared in three matches and recorded two saves. The North Attleboro, Massachusetts, native did not take the net once in his first two years in Storrs, and when he did see game action as an upperclassman, the contest had already been decided. 

Such was the case on Oct. 28 at Joseph J. Morrone Stadium when graduate goalkeeper Clayton Knibbs allowed four goals in 55 minutes against the Xavier Musketeers. Regular starter Jayden Hibbert did not suffer an injury during the Huskies’ regular-season finale; he got a red card after interfering with a Musketeers fast break opportunity at the 23-minute mark. In accordance with NCAA rules, the two-time Big East Goalkeeper of the Week had to sit out Connecticut’s next game, which coincidentally was the quarterfinal round of the Big East Tournament.  

Finishing fifth in Big East Conference play at 4-4-0, the Huskies traveled to Queens for another bout with the St. John’s Red Storm, a team they bested 2-1 in Storrs in early September. At the helm of UConn’s first postseason match since 2019, head coach Chris Gbandi gave Briere the nod for his first career start. How the Huskies reached this position requires looking at the entire season.  

It started as the calendar flipped from September to October. Connecticut captured a 1-0 home win over the Villanova Wildcats on Sept. 29, but the offense suddenly stopped clicking. Battling two ranked opponents and a Division II program, the Huskies were outscored 6-1 despite outshooting their foes 59-19. Their lone goal in that seven-day stretch came from a penalty kick graduate forward Adil Iggoute converted in the 80th minute against the Assumption Greyhounds. 

Tying against Assumption in their last nonconference match of the season set UConn up for disaster early in their battle with the Marquette Golden Eagles four days later. Senior defender Jai Hsieh-Bailey stunned the Goal Patrol and the Morrone Stadium crowd five minutes into the game with his first career goal; senior forward Beto Soto followed suit 25 minutes later. 

The Huskies had rallied down one and come out victorious multiple times in Gbandi’s two-season tenure but had not completed a multi-goal comeback since before they returned to the Big East in 2020. Like they had done twice before, UConn pulled within one when Big East Co-Freshman of the Year Kieran Chandler buried his second career goal from outside the box with two minutes left until halftime. Running out of time the last two instances they cut a deficit in half, the Huskies had an entire half at their disposal to at least even up the match. 

UConn Men’s soccer takes on Xavier at Marrone Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. The Huskies’ last regular season game ended in a loss of 0-4 to Xavier after goalkeeper Jayden Hibbert received a red card in the 22nd minute. Photo by Zach Moller/The Daily Campus.

Forward Scott Testori did just that, knotting the game at two at the 71-minute mark with a header in front of the net. By the 75th minute, UConn played with just nine men when Chandler got sent off from the bench. Already with a goal and an assist, Testori chipped a shot past Golden Eagles goalkeeper Ludvig Målberg in the 81st minute that capped the comeback and gave the Huskies their first lead in two weeks. Hibbert got the final word with a save eight minutes later, securing Connecticut’s 3-2 comeback victory. 

“Not the start we would have liked, but I thought the guys fought back,” Gbandi stated after that dramatic match over three weeks ago. “Both teams got a red card, so we had to deal with it. I thought, for whatever reason, we dealt with it a little bit better.” 

The Huskies went 1-2-0 in their last three games, with a road win against the Creighton Bluejays earning them a spot in the postseason. Facing the Red Storm in the Big East Tournament for the first time since a 1-0 extra-time defeat in the championship match in 2011, UConn struck first when Testori buried his eighth goal of the year on a header in the 21st minute. St. John’s answered less than two minutes into the second half to tie the match at one, but the Huskies kept pushing.  

Both teams stared down their opponent’s goalie over the next 55 minutes, but sophomore Eli Conway made the Red Storm blink first. Sprinting past several Johnnies, Conway got out in front of goalkeeper Alec McLachlan and finished off the wide-open chance with his first goal since the third game of the season. Connecticut held on for a 2-1 victory, marking the only upset in the Big East Tournament that Saturday evening. 

“Going on the road, scoring a goal and then having them come back to tie it right in the second half, there is a tendency for a team to put their head down,” Gbandi said afterward. “This group just would not give up and they just kept pushing.” 

For all of the grit the Huskies showed in their quarterfinal fight, Briere’s efforts made the difference in the team’s first postseason win since 2018. 

“I am so proud of Kyle [Briere],” Gbandi noted. “For him to get this opportunity and make the most of it says a lot about him as a player and the character that he has.” 

UConn now has their sights set on doing what the women’s team could not: upset the Hoyas in the Big East Tournament semifinals. Georgetown has had the edge in the conference rivalry since the Huskies left the Big East in 2013 with a 6-0-1 record, four shutouts and three goals allowed. Even though Hibbert will most likely get the start in the conference semifinals, the senior goalkeeper made the most of an unexpected opportunity with the season on the line. One thing became clear in the moment: resiliency reigned supreme. 

“When you are on a team and when you are in this family, you cannot stop working,” Briere commented. “These guys are worth fighting for. I finally got my chance and those guys helped me through it.” 

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