It’s an age-old tactic in team sports: Insert a fresh-legged substitute late in the game to provide an offensive spark.
The maneuver worked brilliantly for the USF men’s soccer team Saturday, and it couldn’t have come at a better time or against a better opponent.
Freshman Brian Gil entered in the 83rd minute, and a mere four minutes later, Gil broke a 1-1 deadlock, defeating No. 14 Saint Louis 2-1 to halt the Billikens’ nine-match winning streak and give the Bulls (9-3-0, 4-2 in C-USA) the lead in the Conference USA race.
“Coach told the subs coming on the field to try to make an impact,” Gil said. “Throughout the game, I was thinking how I could put myself in the position of helping the team, and a goal seemed like the best thing to do.”
Gil’s goal, his third of the season, capped an entertaining encounter at the USF Soccer Stadium that featured numerous scoring opportunities, especially for the visiting team. But despite some tantalizingly close chances, the Billikens (9-3-1, 4-2) couldn’t avoid the Bulls’ first win against SLU in four years.
“I can’t put a finger on what the difference was, but I was happy the way the result turned out,” said first year USF coach George Kiefer. “I thought the guys worked hard, and bringing Gil on with fresh legs, it was a great finish on his part.”
On a counterattack, Bulls midfielder Jeff Thwaites fed a through-ball to a streaking Gil down the right side. Gil controlled in the penalty area and withstood a tackle from Andy Pusateri, then sent the ball goalward just as SLU goalkeeper Martin Hutton arrived to pressure the shot. Gil’s left-footed chip seemed to tease the partisan crowd, estimated at more than 1,000, before floating just inside the far post.
“I was disappointed (with) the result, but that’s the basis of the game: getting a goal when you needed it, and South Florida did,” said SLU coach Dan Donigan. “It was a 50/50 tackle, and the ball bounced to him (Gil) instead of to our guy. That’s soccer. That’s part of the game.”
Forward Jason Cole did everything he could to lead the Billikens to victory, peppering the Bulls’ goal with shots and headers but narrowly missing out on most of his chances. Cole, a wingback for his previous three collegiate seasons, got the best chance of the evening in the 18th minute when he found room inside the USF 6-yard box and fired at goal from an acute angle, but Troy Perkins denied him with a diving save off his legs.
“He’s the fastest guy I have ever come up against in college, by far,” said Bulls defender Casey Stump, who was Cole’s primary marker. “His jumping ability is off the charts, I swear. … He has converted from a defender, so he knows what we defenders are thinking. He knows what to do. He’s got a little advantage on everybody.”
Said Kiefer, “Cole’s a great player when he’s allowed to run at you. He’s a great player in the air, but he’s not particularly great when you can stop him from turning … but he’s a handful. We talked to (sweeper) Jared (Vock) about providing more cover. I knew Cole from when I was (an assistant) at Connecticut; he can hurt you if you fall asleep on him.”
Though Cole kept Perkins and the Bulls defenders on their toes, it was USF who scored first, thanks to Brandon Streicher in the 64th minute. Freshman forward Hunter West shot past Hutton, but the ball was cleared off the line by a defender. The ball fell right to Streicher, who tapped it into the empty net.
Eight minutes later, it was Cole’s turn. The Billikens caught the Bulls’ defenders flat-footed, and Joe Hammes sent a quick pass to Cole, who was making a diagonal run into the penalty area. Cole pivoted and sent his 15-yard shot through Perkins’ legs into the net for his ninth goal of the year.
The game continued with rapid back-and-forth play until Gil’s decider.
“South Florida, this game meant a lot to them, and it meant a lot to us, too,” Donigan said. “It was a great challenge for us, and they did what they needed to do to win.
“There were a lot of emotions out on the field, and it was a very good soccer game.”
Staff Writer Vanessa Garnica contributed to this report.