Five matches into the 2016 USF men’s soccer season, the Bulls were off to the worst start in coach George Kiefer’s 14-year career at USF.
The Bulls’ frustrations culminated with a 2-0 loss at home to Jacksonville, which marked the teams’ third-straight loss and dropped them to 0-3-2.
“When we lost against Jacksonville at home, we were negative with one another,” senior forward Nazeem Bartman said. “We started pointing fingers at one another, like it’s this one’s fault or this person’s fault, and it just didn’t help us.”
Senior midfielder Graham Smith, one of the more vocal leaders on the team, called a team meeting after the loss to address the issues going on with the Bulls.
“At that time, everyone was just picking at the negative parts of each person and that wasn’t good,” sophomore defender Prosper Figbe said. “After that (meeting), we just trusted the process and played for each other.”
USF went on to win its next four matches — shutting out opponents in each contest.
Despite that hot streak, the Bulls dropped three of their next four matches, but this time the players didn’t allow the losses to get in their heads.
“I think (the season turned around) once everyone made a decision they were going to stick together and support each other and look for the positives in each other,” Kiefer said. “That comes about very easy when you’re winning; it’s much more difficult when you’re losing.
“But I felt like they did a good job prior to Gulf Coast and we dropped the Gulf Coast game. But they actually all went around and were shaking each other’s hands and they knew they all fought hard for the match. They stuck together even after a loss, and I don’t think we’ve lost since then.”
Along with the Bulls’ renewed sense of companionship, the team was also aided by the midseason return of several key players who had dealt with injuries.
“We started getting our confidence back when we had every single one of our players healthy again, we had a lot of injuries throughout the season,” Bartman said. “As soon as those guys started coming back, the team’s been clicking.
“We missed Gonzalo (Rodriguez), who for me is one of the best midfielders in this country. Then it was me, Lindo (Mfeka) and Marcus (Epps) injured, too. So, that’s a lot of senior players there that didn’t play. For us to be able to do well as a team, we need the whole team and not just certain people.”
Since that 3-2 loss at FGCU on Oct. 11, USF won its remaining four regular season matches, clinching the AAC regular season title with a 1-0 win in double overtime at SMU on Oct. 29.
The Bulls, who merely thought they had won another conference game, erupted in celebration for a second time that night when a fan in the stands told them they won the conference.
“We went out to the SMU game just taking it as another game,” Bartman said. “It was a game that we wanted to win and we needed to win. Last year, we tied with them here and we wanted to change that this year.
“We celebrated when we won, but when we heard we won the conference, we celebrated even more — Outside, in the locker room, we even had the coaches dancing too, it was amazing.”
USF (9-6-2, 6-1) defeated Temple 1-0 on Saturday to end its regular season and will host the upcoming AAC Tournament, beginning with a match against fourth-seeded UCF at 7 p.m. on Friday.
With the Bulls hoping to win the conference tournament for the second time in four seasons and push for an NCAA Tournament berth, the players will look to lean on the communication and chemistry that was their downfall earlier this season.
“It’s trust,” Figbe said. “Last year, everyone was from different backgrounds and nationalities. So last year, let’s say you’re from Spain, you’re going to hang out with guys from Spain. Me, I’m from Nigeria so I would hang out with people from Nigeria.
“It doesn’t work like that this year. Everyone right now, we do things together. Like rather than me hanging out with Nazeem because I’m closer with Nazeem, it doesn’t work like that. That’s been a big change for us this year and going into the tournament, it’s going to be good if we keep doing that.”