Most men’s soccer programs in Conference USA range from dismal to decent, with cycles of good and bad play through the years.And then there is Saint Louis.The Billikens have won more national championships – 10 – than any other school in the country, and their 39 NCAA appearances are more than any other school in the nation. The Billikens are the three-time defending C-USA regular-season and the 2000 tournament champions. USF (10-2, 3-1 in C-USA) renews its rivalry against the Billikens (9-0, 5-0 in C-USA) Saturday at 7 p.m. at SLU’s Robert R. Hermann Stadium. USF coach John Hackworth said there is no reason to be overawed by the Saint Louis aura.”I think they’re one of the best teams in the country, and there are a number of teams in our conference who are at the same exact level, if not higher than they are,” Hackworth said.After nine matches, the Billikens are in a familiar position: undefeated (their best start since 1979) and atop the C-USA standings. But the Bulls are not far behind and can overtake Saint Louis with a win. “We have to do a good job as a collective unit of making a commitment to defend and playing the roles that we have set forth for individual positions,” Hackworth said. “If we do that, we’re going to be in position to win the game. And in every close game we’ve had, we’ve won. We found a way to win.” Besides leapfrogging the Billikens, the Bulls have another motivation for winning Saturday. Saint Louis ended USF’s season with a 4-3 victory last year at USF in the regular season finale for both teams. The Bulls led 2-1 and 3-2 before allowing three late goals that eliminated them from playoff contention.”We had them on the ropes, and we were dominating probably for the first 60-70 minutes … and they beat us just through lack of concentration,” said senior Joe Valencia. “Talent-wise we had ’em. They have good players there too … I think we’re a better team and we should have won that game, and this year it’s going to be the same type of challenge. “It’s a little harder because we’re going to be playing at their house, in front of 4,000 fans.”Of the 11 Billiken starters last year, 10 have returned this year, including All-American midfielder/forwards Brad Davis, Jack Jewsbury and Jason Cole. Jewsbury scored a hat trick in last year’s match.”He’s not your most skillful player, but he knows how to put the ball in the net,” Valencia said of Jewsbury, also the 2000 C-USA Player of the Year. “So if we give him any space, he could kill us. I think he’s going to be our most dangerous player to cover.”Valencia said he will remember last year’s match when he takes the field Saturday.
“Of course, they ended our season last year,” he said. “We struggled in our last game (5-0 loss to North Carolina) so we have to redeem ourselves.
“If we win this game, we’re right back on top in the conference, so this game has so much riding on it. It’s probably the biggest game so far this season.”
The Bulls will tinker with their starting formation, moving from a standard 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 formation. Valencia moves from his usual left back slot to right midfield, while central defender Casey Stump moves up to center midfield. Right winger Matt Cavenaugh will start up front with leading scorer Jason Cudjoe (six goals, one assist).
“Cavenaugh, he’s a scrappy player,” Valencia said. “So if they mess up anything in the back, he’ll get to it and he’ll clean it up. He’s a hunter.”
Hackworth said the current USF team is much better- equipped to defeat the Billikens than the 2000 squad was.
“We’re a much different team. We’re much better. We play much more sound defense,” Hackworth said. “For us, we’ve improved dramatically and for Saint Louis, I think they’ve improved as well. And that means if both teams bring their ‘A’ games, it’s going to be a fantastic match.”