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Home Sports Sport News Former UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake, SCSU assistant Phil Wheddon excited to return...

Former UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake, SCSU assistant Phil Wheddon excited to return to Connecticut

When the members of the Philadelphia Union make their way to Rentschler Field for Saturday’s pivotal Major League Soccer showdown against Toronto FC (7:30 p.m., ESPN+), the journey will have extra meaning to highly decorated goalkeeper Andre Blake and goalkeeper coach Phil Wheddon.

Perhaps neither would have found success at the MLS level if not for their time spent in Connecticut. But there is no question that Blake’s three seasons as an All-American goalkeeper at UConn and Wheddon’s time helping Southern Connecticut State’s men’s program win back to back Division II national championships propelled their careers in the right direction.

“It kind of helped to build me into the person I am today,” Blake said. “It definitely prepared me for the next level. It definitely played a vital role in my career and where I am today, so I am definitely thankful for sure.”

Blake tied UConn’s single-season record with 15 shutouts as a freshman in 2011. He finished in the top three in UConn history with 36 shutouts and 0.56 goals against average in three seasons, leading the Huskies to the NCAA Division I quarterfinals each year. The Huskies were 37-2-6 with 30 shutouts at home in Blake’s time at UConn.

Blake became the first goalkeeper taken with top pick in the MLS college draft in 2014. Philadelphia hasn’t regretted that selection one bit — Blake recently was named the MLS is Back Golden Glove winner, was the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2016, and has 36 career MLS shutouts.

At UConn, Blake lost only two home matches in his three seasons. He also was able to play in front of home crowds of more than 4,000 fans 22 times as a Husky. Those regulars at Blake’s collegiate games will need to watch the game from home since no fans will be allowed at the game due to COVID-19 protocols.

Still, Blake feels a certain sense of excitement to be returning to Connecticut.

“It is always good going up to Connecticut,” Blake said. “I have great memories up there so it is definitely going to be a good time for me and hopefully I can go up there and continue to make good memories up there.”

Blake has been making plenty of good memories. He had some spectacular performances during the MLS is Back tournament, helping Philadelphia advance to the semifinals with wins over the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City, before falling to eventual champion Portland.

Nobody had a better vantage point for Blake’s brilliant play than his position coach.

“Andre is an elite goalkeeper so any time you get to work with an elite athlete like him, he is a ton of fun on a daily basis,” said Wheddon, who was hired by Philadelphia after stints as Syracuse’s women’s soccer coach and with the U.S. national team. “We challenge each other to be better and that’s what this is all about. Every day is a new challenge and I am enjoying every minute of it. I think he has unlimited potential, to be honest. I have seen very few goalkeepers as quick as he is around the goal, reaction speed is phenomenal. I think he could play in most leagues around the world.

“It is more about fine tuning different areas of the game based on how our team wants to play and also to see the challenges of the opposition, so whether that is crosses, whether that is playing out of the back or making instinctive saves, our training involves an awful lot of different aspect and I am fortunate enough that Andre has had an open mind to everything that I want to do.”

Wheddon, who played in two games at SCSU during the 1991 season (behind All-American Bo Oshoniyi), looks back fondly on his time in Connecticut. .

“We had some very good years at Southern Connecticut,” Wheddon said. “Working in that environment ultimately helped me to advance onto the MetroStars so it was a good step and getting to work with elite players. Every part of your career was a stepping stone, I feel like it really helped me in my career.”

Blake couldn’t say enough good things about his time working with Wheddon.

“Phil is a great person not just a coach, he tries to have communication and that is always important for a goalkeeper,” Blake said. “It is more mental than physical, so it is always important to have that relationship with your goalkeeper coach, to have that level of trust to understand each other. Things have been working really well for me and Phil. I think we understand each other and that is most important. We are learning from each other and we are both getting better. He is getting better as a coach and I am getting better as a player, so what more can you ask for.”

There hasn’t been much of a break from Philadelphia’s elimination from the MLS is Back tournament and starting the current phase of play. Still, Philadelphia enters Saturday with an 8-2-4 record, in a game that is the second of six home games at Rentschler Field for Toronto.

“It’s been like 2020, it’s been a crazy year for everyone, but we are just thankful that we are healthy and we are still able to play the game that we love,” Blake said. “It is about adjusting. In life there are going to be moments where you have to adjust to different situations so for us right now, it is another moment to adjust and adapt to the situation.”

james.fuller@hearstmediact.com

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