The University of Connecticut’s return to Big East men’s soccer has been anything but a warm welcome for the Huskies. After four games, the three-time NCAA champions are 0-3-1 in conference play and have failed to score in each of those games.
UConn’s coaching staff also took a big hit early on when 24-season head coach Ray Reid took an indefinite leave of absence for family reasons on March 1. Assistant coach Mike Miller has since overseen the Huskies’ last three games in which they lost to St. John’s home and away and drew with Seton Hall at Joseph J. Morrone Stadium.
The Pirates have an opportunity to avenge their dropped points in Connecticut when they host the Huskies on Saturday in their final home game of the season. These teams will face off for the first time since October 2011 at Owen T. Carroll Field as their 32nd meeting between both sides in a series that the Huskies slightly lead with a 14-13-4 record.
The most recent meeting between these two sides ended in a goalless draw. However, the Pirates walked away from a game they dominated knowing they got less than they deserved. Ahead of Saturday’s rematch, The Setonian looked at UConn’s film to put together an in-depth scouting report on what to expect from the Huskies on the field.
How do the Huskies play?
UConn plays out of a standard 4-2-3-1 formation where its wide defenders are encouraged to push forward to help the offense and wingers are given space to cut inside. This formation provides the Huskies with a solid defensive base and natural passing lanes that help the offense pull apart their opponent’s back line.
The Huskies have rotated pieces throughout this season, but their last game against St. John’s saw them use this starting lineup. The only changes from this team to the one that drew 0-0 with Seton Hall in the previous game were Owen Guglielmino and Kai Griese starting over Moussa Wade and Djimon Johnson, respectively, but UConn will likely turn to Wade to play off Okem Chime up top.
The graphic above is just a guide to how the Huskies will likely set up to start the game. A staple of UConn’s style of play is how well its midfield and front-line rotate positions to disrupt their opponent’s defensive structure. This clip from their loss at St. John’s demonstrates the meticulous movements the Huskies make to pull defenders out of position and open space for their teammates.
Giancarlo Vaccaro (No. 17) takes the ball down the left flank in transition, but the St. John’s defender does well to keep him from getting into the final third. However, the inside run made by Ben Awashie (No. 6) simultaneously pulls the Red Storm’s midfielders back and opens the space into where Vaccaro decides to dribble. With St. John’s still scrambling to cover its tracks defensively, Vaccaro switches the point of attack to right back Sean Martin Jr. (No. 14) so that the opposition must press forward and not fall into a defensive block.
Martin then plays a vertical pass into Jayden Reid while also attempting to run into the space Reid vacated on the right side. Although Reid decides to play a negative ball to Djimon Johnson (No. 20), Martin’s run pulls another defender away from UConn’s midfielders and allows them to recirculate possession across the field as they look for an open lane to attack.
This is also where the wide defenders’ contributions in attack come into play. As the image below shows, St. John’s wide defenders are now positioned narrowly, and the space they should be filling out wide is open for the Huskies to exploit. When Johnson plays the ball across to Kai Griese (No. 22), the Huskies’ attack down the Red Strom’s left side begins.
Once Griese plays the ball out to Ahdan Tait (No. 7), he continues his run to open the space for Tait to cut into. Vaccaro, who’s still positioned centrally from earlier in the play, then shows to connect with his left-back with a tidy piece of interplay to send Tait in behind St. John’s defense. While UConn doesn't score from the play, it demonstrates just how well the Huskies are at patiently moving the ball around midfield before penetrating with one swift passing sequence.
Who should Seton Hall be weary of?
#9 Okem Chime (Fr., forward)
Chime has shown to be an interesting prospect in his first season of college soccer despite not yet scoring his first goal for the Huskies. At the focal point of their attack, Chime has played an all-action role that involves the 19-year-old striker dropping into midfield or pushing into the wide channels to continue UConn’s forward movement. His hold-up play has been the most impressive facet of his game as Chime consistently proves his ability to fend off aggressive defenders while also maintaining possession for his team.
#17 Giancarlo Vaccaro (Fr., midfielder)
Vaccaro’s a dynamic winger that loves to take defenders on in one-on-one situations and thrives in a system that allows him to come inside when the space is open. The freshman winger is good at holding the ball in his own respect as well and often wins fouls for the Huskies down the flanks with his ability to turn around defenders in tight spaces.
#22 Kai Griese (Fr., midfielder)
Everything the Huskies do going forward runs through Griese. Playing slightly in front of Johnson in midfield, Griese facilitates the Huskies’ high pressure when the opposition forces a turnover in their final third. He’s a relentless player who works hard to cut off passing lanes and eliminate space for his opponents, but Griese can also pop up in spaces around the penalty box to put a shot on target. When the Pirates last met the Huskies, Griese led UConn with three total shots and two shots on target.
How does Seton Hall stop them?
One weakness in UConn’s defensive set up is its consistent struggle to deal with cross into the box, and that’s exactly where the Pirates have thrived most this season. James Boote has already collected four assists from set pieces this season, and the likes of Maurice Williams, Luca Dahn, CJ Tibbling and Paavo Riihijarvi will thrive against a side that can’t deal with those types of balls into the box.
Though the Pirates were held goalless by the Huskies last time around, they dominated possession and handled their opponent’s counter attacks well. Seton Hall utilizes Tibbling in a similar fashion to how UConn uses Chime, but it may help the Pirates to turn to Andrea Borg to provide a bit of unpredictability in their attack. Martin was consistently exploited by St. John’s while playing as a right back, and Borg’s silky dribbling ability would be more than capable of bypassing the defender to whip in a cross for his teammates to finish.
UConn also tends to struggle against physical opposition, and that’s exactly what Seton Hall brings to the field every game. Riihijarvi has been immense as the midfield’s enforcer, and Boote’s role is like that of Griese’s for UConn in the way he zips around the field in defense. JP Marin and Kamil Koreichi’s work rate on the wings will also be crucial to nullifying the creative link-up play the Huskies can produce as well.
Saturday’s game will produce an interesting battle between a side still looking for their first goal of the Big East season and a side fighting for first place in the overall standings, and Seton Hall will favor its chances of shutting out UConn again for sixth home win of the season.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.