By JERRY TRECKER
Special to the Chronicle
Thanks to the absence of video replay, the University of Connecticut soccer season ended in bizarre fashion Friday night, but the absence of coach Ray Reid's men from both the American Athletic Conference title game and the NCAA tournament cannot be laid at the feet of a missed call.
Television clearly showed that a free kick taken by Abdou Mbacke Thiam with 43 seconds remaining against Central Florida should have been registered as a goal. The ball hit the crossbar, came down behind the goal line and then bounced back into the field of play.
The officials got it wrong, denied the goal and UCF collected a 1-0 win and a berth in the American's title game. UConn finished 8-8-2, losing five of its final six games.
The overall picture has little to do with Friday night's result, annoying as it might be for Reid and Husky fans to swallow. The focus instead needs to be on what has gone wrong recently for a program which had become used to regular NCAA post-season assignments.
UConn lost four of its last six a year ago, collapsing after a promising start in American Conference play. This year saw a repeat performance, the team looking tired and jaded down the stretch after starting AAC play 4-0 and sitting in the conference driver's seat.
Reid can take solace from the fact that he utilized seven freshmen and sophomores most of the season and has eight starters back for next season. But his team's lack of depth and options beyond the starters became increasingly apparent as the season progressed and opponents figured out that UConn had no ability to control play in the center of the field.
Early in the year, when strong teams like Notre Dame, Georgetown and even North Florida had the bulk of possession, it was believeable that UConn simply didn't match up against more talented midfields. Down the stretch, however, when teams not markedly better still controlled the game and forced UConn to chase, it became apparent that extending the season beyond the AAC tournament was only a dream.
Reid knows that the Huskies need to reinforce the spine of the team.
Goalkeeper Scott Levene graduates after giving good service for three seasons. He cut down on the mistakes that had plagued his junior year and was solid this season, but UConn will need a dominant force between the pipes as they go forward.
Similarly, UConn has to find a central defender and a central midfielder who can become take-charge players. They've not had commanding personalities there for a while now and the absence of leadership has been costly.
Abdou Mbacke Thiam has been isolated up front for two years. He still managed to lead the team in scoring but everybody knows he is the only dangerous attacker and defends against him accordingly. Maybe the loss of transfer Dayonn Harris to injury was more costly than thought at the time. At the very least, Thiam must have an effective partner next year.
Maybe most important, UConn has to figure out the American, a conference where soccer plays second fiddle at many schools, but a league that the Huskies have not been able to master. Like it or not, the way to the NCAA tournament is through league play but that hasn't sunk in at Storrs.
Reid and associate head coach John Deeley knew and accepted that they were playing a limited hand this season; both openly acknowledged that "we need a few more key pieces" even as both strongly believe that the basis for a much better team is already on campus in the sophs and freshmen who played so much this season.
But the hard numbers tell a tough story. The 8-8-2 final record marks the first time in his long coaching history that Reid did not have a winning season. That's far from the kind of finish expected back in August and a long way from expectations of the Morrone Stadium faithful.