Their families and coaches brought them to Storrs when they were 9, 10, 11 years old. Long before they grew their first whiskers, Max Wasserman, Colin Bradley, Sean Weir — Connecticut's kids — wanted to play soccer at UConn for the coach with all the whiskers.
"I grew up watching the team play; I wanted to emulate them," Wasserman said.
Max Zieky was Wasserman's guy. Same first name, same home state. Zieky's from Glastonbury. Wasserman's from Farmington, although his second home since he was 5 has been the Oakwood Sports Center in Glastonbury, where he played and his dad, Bob, has coached.
Wasserman loved Cesar Cuellar of Bolivia, too. "He was awesome up top," said Wasserman. When Cuellar was a freshman in 2000 — the year UConn won it all against Creighton — he scored on a delicious bicycle kick in overtime at Clemson during the NCAAs. How could you not love something like that?
"Those teams were such a diverse group, they were cool to watch," said Wasserman, a senior defender who went to Loomis Chafee. "It was different than anything I'd see around the state. It was the best."
Being among the best for years, of course, has meant that Ray Reid has reached beyond America's borders for talent. The Huskies, ranked seventh nationally, are expected to start seven internationals against Northeastern. Spain, Senegal, Jamaica. … Reid has built quite the Noah's Ark over the years. And as they go two by two, the two 2012 Connecticut starters are intensely aware of their dual soccer citizenship.
"There's a lot of pride to represent my home state school," said Bradley, a junior midfielder from West Hartford and Avon Old Farms. "And when you a look at our lineup, it also gives me a lot of pride to represent such a diverse group."
"Yeah, we're the outliers," said Wasserman after echoing Bradley's serious words.
UConn has made 33 NCAA appearances, winning national titles in 1981 and 2000 and advancing to the Final Four five times. Yet at the same time, Reid said, it has grown more difficult to find elite young state players.
"Twenty years ago, you could get a starting team in Connecticut," Reid said. "Lyle Yorks, John DeBrito, Timmy Horton, Curt Onalfo, John Garvey, Gary Cronin, Michael Thompson … these were all big-time players. Now you're lucky if you get one-two guys in a senior class.
"Back in the day, literally, we could have had seven Connecticut kids starting and been a Final Four team. Those kids went to Duke, Virginia, Clemson, big-time schools, too. For whatever reason, it has dried up. There are still good guys, but not as many. There's nowhere near like it was. I'm not blaming anybody. I don't know what it is. I'll be honest with you, I wish I knew.
"We got Will Noiset from Wethersfield. We got Istvan Kanyo [from North Haven]. We got Nick Zuniga [from Norwalk]. Good young players. But we should have five starting from Connecticut. It's not a knock. Nick [a freshman] is going to be a fantastic player, like Tony Cascio. He's going to be an MLS player. These kids are good. I wished there were more. The senior class, there are some every year, but there should be 10,12, 13 players."
Reid is a great coach and a great piece of work. He's a barker. He can be an endearing joker. He also can rattle windows. If he's growing that beard to be like Santa Claus, well, he's fooled his players. After being eliminated three years in a row from the NCAA Tournament on penalty kicks and being vexed by the serendipity of it all, he was wondering who the hell was watching from the other end of the field Friday when the Huskies went to practice them. Was it a PK spy?
No, it was me.
"Think I'm a little paranoid?" Reid said, breaking into a big laugh.
"It's really hard to explain for anyone who doesn't know him," Bradley said. "You've got to listen to what he's saying, not how he says it a lot of times. He's so passionate about his team."
Weir, typically the first sub to enter games, agrees.
"He's tough," said Weir, a senior midfielder from New Milford who went to South Kent. "He demands perfection. It really changes you as a person."
Recently, Wasserman told the UConn Daily Campus, "I'll be the first one to say he's given me absolutely hell."
How hard was Reid on him?
"I think even he at this point would admit he laid into me pretty good when I first got here," Wasserman said. "He demands perfection every single day.
"He jokes around that Connecticut kids are softer, but I know he wants to get us tough. Unlike some of our guys who probably didn't grow up in the best circumstances around the world, we grew up in probably a more comfortable style of living. Maybe we had things taken care of for us."
Wasserman, who'll graduate in December in psychology, endured and prospered to the point where Reid said, "I think he has a chance at the MLS. I really mean that." So when his UConn career ends, Sunday, next weekend or next month with a national title, Wasserman will take a shot at playing pro in the states or abroad.
"I've played all my life," Wasserman said. "I'd regret not trying."
His dad played pro in the ASL. At home, in fact, there's a precious memento of those days.
"He played against the Cosmos once and traded uniforms with Franz Beckenbauer," Max said. "I never put it on. I don't know if he'd want me to. I don't even know if he's washed it."
The best Wasserman family moment of 2012, however, came in September. Overtime. Game televised nationally on Fox Soccer. Free kick. Wasserman bent the ball around a four-man wall for the winner.
"It was one of the better moments of my career," Wasserman said. "The best part was my grandmother [Jean Wasserman] who lives in Florida bought the channel for that one game. She hasn't come up to see me play since I've been at UConn.
"Afterward, she left me a message on my phone. I still have it. It's great."
Weir, who majors in exercise science, could have gone to Brown. He chose to chase his soccer dream at UConn. He started seven down the stretch in 2011 and has appeared in every game as a senior. Injury? Fatigue? Replicating opponent players in practice? He knows his role and does it happily.
"My sixth guy off the bench," Reid said turning a basketball metaphor.
Meanwhile, Bradley, who has blossomed since being redshirted as a freshman, entered UConn with modest expectations.
"You're definitely right about that," said Bradley, majoring in sociology. "One day at practice my freshman year [Reid] threw me in the middle from left back and something happened for me. It was a stroke of luck in some ways and a lot of hard work after that."
"And now look," Reid said. "He could end up starting every game for four years."
Bradley was one of only two Huskies to score during penalty kicks in the 2011 quarterfinal loss to UNC Charlotte that left UConn agonizingly short of its first Final Four since 2000.
"There was so much heartbreak," Bradley said. "It adds to how badly we want it. That heartbreak is going to help us."
"The chemistry on this team is unlike anything I've ever been a part of," Wasserman said. "We deserve at this point to get to the Final Four."
Spoken like UConn players, spoken like home-state fans.