It is his first head coaching appointment. He has had just two weeks and two preseason matches to assess his squad. Little wonder George Kiefer, the new men’s soccer coach, is shying away from bold predictions.
The former assistant coach of the 2000 national champion UConn Huskies, Kiefer seems determined to keep expectations manageable in his first season. If Kiefer harbors conference title ambitions for this year, he is keeping them between himself and his team.
“We would never look towards the end of the year. We would always take things step-by-step,” Kiefer said. “The key to what we’re trying to do right now is have a good week of training in preparation for Stetson.”
Saturday’s season opener against the Hatters ushers in a new era for the Bulls, marking the beginning of Kiefer’s tenure as head coach. Although he succeeded former coach John Hackworth, who resigned to be an assistant for the Under-17 National Team, in June, Kiefer has only been able to work for two weeks with his squad. Understandably, Kiefer remains coy upon whether the Bulls’ third-place pick in the Conference USA coaches’ poll is a fair assessment of his team’s abilities.
“As far as the team being picked to finish third – I think that can be positive motivation all year long,” he said. “The one thing I’m trying to make (the team) understand is that our reputation is not that we’re the best in the conference.”
Highlights from this season’s schedule, which Kiefer inherited from Hackworth, include matchups against Saint Louis, seeking a fifth consecutive conference title, and a road trip to UAB, ranked 15th nationally and the C-USA coaches’ pick for the 2002 title. Kiefer, however, is adamant his team raises its sights no further than its next match.
“St. Louis is Oct. 19, and UAB is months away,” Kiefer said. “I want them to concentrate on being a good solid defensive team, and their only focus right now is Stetson. At the end of the year, we’ll look at where we finished up and go from there.”
Last season’s 15-7-0 record saw the Bulls advance as far as the C-USA quarterfinals and the second round of the NCAA championship, finally succumbing to Penn State 1-0 in triple overtime. Having lost the offensive threat of senior Jason Cudjoe, last season’s top scorer with 10 goals, the Bulls will rely more heavily on midfielder Jeff Thwaites’ deadly free kicks. As a consequence of Kiefer’s preference for a 4-4-2 formation though, Thwaites will be expected to contribute defensively, too.
“Jeff looks good. Jeff has been extremely focused,” said Kiefer. “I’ve heard that he’s just an attacking player, that he doesn’t like defending too much, but I think he needs to understand that he needs to be a two-way player. I think we’re getting it out of him right now.”
Other than Cudjoe, only Matt Cavenaugh and Joe Valencia of last season’s regular starters have graduated, leaving Kiefer with an experienced squad.
Among the freshmen joining the roster is Hunter West, named Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year for 2001, and midfielder Jon Peterson, who has competed in the highest division of youth soccer in Holland.
Contrary to the usual practice of appointing his own staff, Kiefer has retained assistant coaches Mike Duncan and Jim Felix, both of whom served under Hackworth. Their knowledge of the players, Kiefer said, has been invaluable in easing his transition into his new role.
“It’s been real beneficial to have them to start to talk about certain guys,” he said. “To see if what I’m seeing is new, or has been happening for one year or three years.”
Kiefer’s first priority has been to instill defensive awareness into the whole team.
“The main thing we’re trying to do right now is make them accountable on defense,” Kiefer said. “I don’t want to take away any of their creativity or freedom in attack … but we set out a goal in preseason that we would understand each other’s roles defensively.”
Kiefer said his early impressions of his squad had been favorable, but the small number of his roster playing over the summer disappointed him.
His long-term goal for USF is to foster the same yearlong dedication evinced by the football team.
“They had almost everyone stay this summer, and that didn’t happen overnight. That happens through guys who want to win and work together,” he said. “I want to try and create that same atmosphere with men’s soccer.”