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Rodriguez prepares to lead

By JERRY TRECKER

Special to the Chronicle

By naming former star midfielder and 10-year assistant Margaret (Tietjen) Rodriguez their new women’s soccer head coach, the University of Connecticut kept the job in the Husky family.

That doesn’t mean everything will look the same next season when Rodriguez rolls out her team for the opening game, the first one in 37 seasons that won’t have retired Len Tsantiris calling the shots.

“I think you will see a team with a greater emphasis on pressing higher up the field,” she said this week after accepting the challenge of replacing her legendary predecessor.

“I would like to see us win the ball higher up the field so maybe it will be a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-5-1 we played the past couple of seasons,” Rodriguez continued. “I think our [returning] personnel is a good fit for it because we have some good attacking players. Last year we sat back too much and got caught in possession which put our defenders in tough spots.”

Rodriguez won’t change some key things, however.

“Lenny was a tremendous mentor to me as both a player and as a coach. Some people say he was ‘old school,’ but it’s in a good way. He didn’t micro-manage his players, gave them responsibility to mature on and off the field. I believe in that, too.”

“And the emphasis on academics won’t change. He always used to say that the GPA is what opens the door to your life options.”

Rodriguez and her twin sister, Jennifer, were outstanding midfielders, playing wide positions from 1995 to 1998 when the Huskies were challenging for national titles. She scored 43 goals and collected 42 assists, then played in the old WUSA before starting her coaching career at Hartford.

She knows that the women’s playing field has changed since her career.

“There is so much parity across Division I now. I think there are 335 teams playing, so the talent is really spread thin. It used to be that the top programs had all the top players, but that isn’t true anymore.”

UConn can and will recruit nationally — and internationally — with the emphasis on “blue collar players” who are versatile, hard workers. Rodriguez has been part of the recruiting for a decade now so knows who is coming in. She expects a striker from Sweden to enroll for the upcoming second semester, and she is seeking midfield-defensive versatility as well as goalkeeping depth.

As far as scheduling is concerned, the new coach says she is not averse to resuming play against some state rivals who have disappeared from the slate in recent seasons, but says that the overall philosophy won’t change.

“Our conference travel is crazy so we have to be aware of that with the rest of our schedule,” she said. “We’ve been looking to play teams [outside American conference play] that are top of their leagues or in the NCAA 64 and that won’t change.”

One, major, first challenge is to put together her staff. Not only does she have to replace herself, 8-year staff veteran Zac Shaw has also decided to move on.

Rodriguez would love to be able to turn to her sister, currently an assistant at Central Connecticut, but state nepotism guidelines take that option off the board.

“It would be a dream come true for us to be able to work together, but it’s not possible,” she said. “I have some options in mind and think I might have the first position filled quickly. I’d like to have both filled before the end of the spring.”

For now, job No. 1 is settling into a new role, one she already sounds comfortable with.

“I want us to have speedy players who are comfortable on the ball,” she summed up.

And she wants her team to make life harder for the opposition sooner, rather than later.

 

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