Making defense matter at UConn
Blake on pace to outperform last year’s goalkeeper of the year
To say the Connecticut men's soccer team is stingy might be an understatement.
Last year, the Huskies were the only team in the nation to allow single-digit goals, giving up just seven scores in 20 contests behind the play of Big East Goalkeeper of the Year Josh Ford, who topped Division I with a 0.339 goals against average and set a plethora of program records.
But while the Huskies lost Ford, as well as three starting defenders from last year's backline, head coach Ray Reid has his 2011 squad on pace with last year's stellar defensive effort.
Sophomore center back Andrew Jean-Baptiste leads the group after starting all 20 games during his rookie season, while senior right back Nickardo Blake also brings experience to the table with seven starts in 2010. Reid moved former midfielder Max Wasserman to left back, and junior college transfer Michael Mercado filled the final center back spot to complete the backline.
At goalkeeper, freshman Andre Blake, a native of May Pen, Jamaica, stepped into Ford's shoes, and has allowed just five goals in 16 games, good for a 0.30 goals against average, currently ahead of his predecessor's pace. Nationally-speaking, Creighton has allowed just four goals this season, while Lehigh has given up five.
Reid, who always makes defense his top priority, commends backline for the group effort that has helped the Huskies compile a 13-1-2 overall record, and 4-1-2 mark in league play.
"They've been great at picking up new things," Reid said. "We try to get good soccer players here, and fit them in without reinventing the wheel."
"The whole defensive line has really stepped up to the plate," Jean-Baptiste said. "It's really hard to replace guys like Shawn Nicklaw, Robert Brickley, Greg King and Josh Ford, but these guys are making a name for themselves, especially Andre Blake doing so well in goal for us. The defense is pretty good right now."
UConn has shutout opponents in 12 of 16 games, including a string of nine consecutive shutouts that ended with a 2-1 win against Providence on Oct. 12. The Huskies put together 961:32 scoreless minutes while setting the school record streak.
Senior midfielder Tony Cascio, the 2010 Big East Offensive Player of the Year, sings the praises of his defensive teammates.
"[They] have size and speed, and it is hard to back there through the air or on the ground, especially with Jean-Baptiste back there," Cascio said. "He's really athletic and a lot of forwards don't really match up to his size.
"In the spring and preseason, I went up against our defense all the time and I think we made each other better. Replacing Josh Ford was tough, but we've got Andre Blake now and he's doing an awesome job back there. I wouldn't want to play against our backline."
Cascio and Jean-Baptiste also admire the play of the Huskies' rookie goalie.
"[Blake's] ability to make great saves takes a lot of pressure off the defensive line when crosses come into the box," Jean-Baptiste said. "To have someone with that ability to diffuse the whole play by coming out … it takes a lot off of our backs."
"I can't imagine playing at goalie - you are the last guy back there and it is all on your shoulders," Cascio said. "He's done a great job as a freshman. He's made some big stops for us and I feel really confident with him back there."
Blake, a member of the U-20 Jamaican National Team who stands six-feet, four inches tall, believes the defense is getting better every time they step on the field, but shies away from patting himself on the back.
"We're communicating well and listening to each other, and working together to cover each other," Blake said. "My aim is every time we're on the pitch to improve on our performance and do better each game. It's a good thing to get shutouts, but we didn't look at it too much because we still have nothing to show for it yet this season."
The Huskies were ranked No. 1 in the NSCAA Coaches' Poll for nearly a month. They suffered their first loss of the season to West Virginia (2-0) on Oct. 18, and then battled to a scoreless tie against Georgetown on Oct. 22. UConn fell to No. 5 in this week's poll.
"As soon as a No. 1 team ties or loses a game, you won't be in the No. 1 position anymore," Jean-Baptiste said. "We're still the hunters … we're not the ones with the national championship last year. Until we win something big, the target really won't be there."
However, the Huskies want to earn that No. 1 position by raising the NCAA trophy at the end of the year.
"We know everyone is going to play their best against us, but that's okay, because that means we'll be prepared come tournament time," Cascio said.
The Huskies have two regular season games against Big East foes Marquette on Wednesday and face Seton Hall on Saturday before the postseason conference and NCAA tournaments commence. Marquette is currently in first place in the Big East Blue Division ahead of the second-place Huskies.