Mental adjustment responsible for UConn's turnaround
Talk about a turnaround.
Sure, it's still too early to sing the praises of any one team too much, but the University of Connecticut men's soccer team has at least begun to redeem itself in 2007. After entering last year touted to win the Big East and ranked No. 2 in the country in the preseason, UConn fell short of a conference crown and was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Fairfield in the first round.
Last season wasn't just disappointing for the Huskies.
"It was a failure, a big failure," said senior defender Julius James. "We're all pretty ashamed of it, and it had nothing to do with rankings."
The team had loads of talent (usually, the only thing preseason rankings accurately assess) but simply failed to pull it all together.
"If you take the rankings out, we still definitely underachieved -- because we had a lot of talent and definitely didn't reach as far as we should have," James said.
Only time will tell if UConn achieves what it's capable of, but this season has started off on the right foot. The team opened up winning seven straight before dropping its first match of the season to DePaul 1-0 on Sunday.
That's a change from 2006, when UConn's first win didn't come until its fourth game of the season. The Huskies have turned things around in 2007 with almost the same group. The bulk of the squad includes nine returning starters and another nine returning players coming off the bench. It's not the face of the team that's changed -- it's the mentality.
"We all wanted to win last season. We just didn't have the leadership that we needed," James said. "We didn't have the composure or the experience. We weren't tough-minded enough. We tried to focus on every game, but without good leadership and just talent and not all the intangibles, we didn't have it."
This squad hopes it does. The team has a chemistry it lacked. Practices are more intense. This team has something to prove.
"We all know that last year wasn't our best year, so I think that's kind of motivation to get back out and put UConn on the map," said junior forward O'Brian White. "It just shows what happens when you don't play well as a team. It's kind of in the back of our head."
That motivation has helped the team get where it needs to be.
"I couldn't be happier with the way they're approaching things," coach Ray Reid said. "They've grown up and matured. They understand what's at stake. They understand their ability. They understand what it takes to be successful, and they're trying to do it every day."
After an early NCAA tourney exit, the team reflected on its shortcomings. Players talked about it with their coach. They talked about it with their captains. They talked about it amongst each other.
"Last winter, we sat down and talked about it a lot," said sophomore midfielder Toni Stahl. "It really helped. It was good therapy for us.
"I feel like our team didn't quite know where we were last year. This year we know what our goal is."
It's a relatively simple one -- just win the next game. It's more than a cliché, but for a team that sometimes got caught up in larger-picture goals last season, it serves as a reminder.
"It makes our lives easier," Stahl said. "There were a lot of expectations last year. They all said that we were going to win the Big East and stuff like that, but now the players realize only the next game matters."
Eliminating all other expectations was exactly what Reid was hoping to accomplish.
"Last year, we had a lot of team goals, and I think maybe it was just too much for them," the coach said. "Now we just concentrate on winning the next game. It makes it very short term and very compartmental."
It's also been very successful. The game against Florida International stands as a testament to UConn's growth.
The Huskies had 25 shots against a defensive-minded Golden Panthers team, and Akeem Priestly scored the game-winning goal with nine seconds remaining to give the Huskies a 1-0 win.
"That shows you the guys have their heads on straight," Reid said. "We'd lose that game last year, no question."
However, as reassuring as such a transformation is, the Huskies are aware it's only a step in the right direction.
"It's refreshing to have them finally get it," Reid said. "Whether that means we're going to win anything, we'll see."
If it keeps going in the direction it has, it should be a good show to watch.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.