Spring Tour Brings Huskies Together

    UCONNHUSKIESDOTCOM A favorite moment among the players was a BBQ at Allando Matheson's house in Toronto.
    A favorite moment among the players was a BBQ at Allando Matheson's house in Toronto.

    May 24, 2012

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    By Phil Chardis

    UConn Assistant Director-Athletic Communications

    Editor's Note: As the summer months continue, UConnHuskies.com will be presenting feature stories on what is new in the UConn Division of Athletics. We begin with a look at the recent training trip to Toronto taken by the men's soccer team.

    As Mamadou Diouf leaps to try to get a head on a Carlos Alvarez corner kick this fall, it's probably not going to help that they shared a nervous trip to the top of the CN Tower in Toronto in May.

    When Stephane Diop tries to connect with a lead pass to a cutting Allando Matheson, it probably won't matter that they toured Toronto's historic Fort York, walked through the Royal Ontario Museum, saw the Hockey Hall of Fame, or watched the Blue Jays play the Mets together.

    As Jossimar Sanchez looks to smoothly distribute the ball to his UConn soccer teammates, it probably isn't going to be a factor that they all spent two long bus rides, 10 days of sightseeing, training, and playing games with each other on a foreign tour months before.

    Then again, it just might make a difference.

    One thing is certain --- the bonding of the Huskies through the shared experience of their spring tour in Canada sure couldn't hurt.

    "The chemistry of the group was just fantastic," said UConn soccer coach Ray Reid. "I was saying to myself (beforehand), `Can we pull this off, because we'll lose three weeks in May of getting ready for the fall.' But I thought the players deserved it, and it could be a home run. Turns out, it was one of the best things I've done."

    After a 19-3-3 season which included the Huskies' 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and a berth in the national quarterfinals, Reid felt the time, and the team's dynamic, was right for UConn's first foreign tour since it had a successful trip to Munich in 2005. 

    "You really don't want to go with a younger team, but with an older team with a good senior group coming back," said Reid, who will be starting his 16th season at UConn and 24th overall as a head coach in the fall. "Sometimes, you get freshmen --- good kids, but they get tired and say things like, `Do we have to go there  ...' But the older guys will ask if we can do more, like ...  `When are we ever going to get this chance again ...' I thought our leadership was terrific. Stephane Diop, Jossimar Sanchez, Carlos Alvarez, Andre Blake ... they all did a great job."

    With the approval and the support of UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel and Deputy AD Paul McCarthy, Reid and his staff put together the 10-day, three-match trip to Toronto, with funds raised by the soccer program itself. 

    The on-field benefits are obvious.

    "You get 10 days of practice in May before you leave, then 10 days in Canada of practice and games, so you pick up three weeks," Reid said. "You have your full team together, you play better competition, you're playing away from home, in unfamiliar environments. Especially for the new players, who were freshmen or transfers last August, it's the end of a year and now you can see things clicking in."

    Just as important, however, is the off-field activity, when the players become even more of a team.

    "We are a lot closer now," said Sanchez, a junior midfielder. "When you're on campus, you get to see everyone who goes to the school, especially after the season when we have time off. But being with the team day to day was a lot different. You really get to hang out with just the guys and see how they are off-campus and out of the normal environment."

    Beginning with the long bus ride from Storrs to Toronto, the extended period of togetherness, complete with plenty of laughter, not only can cement relationships, but foster positive changes in existing ones.

    "You see some kids, who may not have had a lot in common, and maybe there was some animosity," Reid explained. "Well, I'm walking back to the hotel at 7 at night and here are these two guys going out to dinner together. You can watch and see guys grow up. A couple of times, we were going to let them go their own way for dinner and the leaders said, `No, we want a team meal tonight.' Those same guys two years ago were saying to me, `Coach, we've had enough team meals, can we have a break?' What happens is, come about January going into their senior year, the hourglass gets flipped and they know it's running out fast and they're really appreciative."

    Not to mention, the Huskies had a chance to see their coach in a more relaxed atmosphere.

    "We do it in May because I can be a little more human in May, much more so than if we did it before preseason," Reid said. "I hope they get to see me in another light. I give them more freedom. There was plenty of laughing --- like, Diop was doing his Ray Reid imitation and had everyone in tears. There are dividends to them seeing the good side of me and feeling a little closer to me now that will carry over to August when I have to be tougher on them."

    Part of the good feeling came from solid training sessions and victories in all three games, against the MLS Toronto FC Reserves, Hamilton FC of the Premier Development League, and Sigma FC.

    But the value of the Huskies' camaraderie throughout the trip --- from visits to Niagara Falls, the Royal Ontario Museum, the CN Tower, Fort York, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the St. Lawrence market, the Rogers Centre, to more informal nights, like the cookout at the Ontario home of Allando Matheson's parents --- is immeasurable.

    "My favorite part of the trip was probably the cookout at Allando's house or the bus ride back to Connecticut," Sanchez said. "We were all excited after having a good trip and playing so well. On the way back, we were dancing and goofing around, even Coach started dancing. It was great to see the guys completely letting loose and having fun."

    The serious business begins in August, of course, as the Huskies pursue a BIG EAST championship and another NCAA tourney berth. Can three exhibition wins and a 10-day sightseeing trip to Canada in May give them a boost?

    "Well, we feel good about ourselves," Reid said. "We went 3-0 on the trip. That doesn't mean anything in the fall, except that they are probably real confident and you hope that carries over."

    And as for the team chemistry, bonding, and busload of intangibles the Huskies brought back with them?

    Hey, they couldn't hurt.