Coach George Kiefer saw it coming all the way.
Despite his warnings throughout the week, the USF men’s soccer team followed last week’s season-best performance with their worst, falling 3-1 to lowly Louisville Friday and souring Senior Night in the process.
The weekend remained bitter for the Bulls Sunday as they squandered a two-goal lead to lose to Florida International 3-2 in overtime.
Mindful of the likelihood of a sub-par performance following USF’s 2-1 victory over then-No. 14 Saint Louis Oct. 19, Kiefer had warned his charges prior to Friday of the dangers of taking the Cardinals lightly. The coach said the inability to handle low-key games, particularly on the back of big games, was the sign of a team that was yet to mature.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to go through nights like this when we really wish we could have some time back,” Kiefer said. “Winning is something that becomes a habit. At this point in time, it’s not a habit right now.”
Senior Kevin Cowan said the effect of a big game often carried over into the next.
“Sometimes when you put so much emotion into playing a team like Saint Louis you’re suspect to come out flat in your very next game,” he said.
The Bulls started the game slowly and were fortunate not to concede when Fernando Tolomelli failed to convert into an open goal after he seized on a weak punch from Bulls keeper Troy Perkins.
The Bulls’ luck ran out in the 25th minute, when the USF defense let a long clearance from Cardinals keeper Brad Sokolowski bounce past them, allowing substitute Justin Pierre to fire unmolested past Perkins.
With the Bulls struggling to produce any potent offense, an equalizer seemed unlikely until an adroit turn and run from substitute J.P. Pagano in the 43rd minute set up Hunter West, whose first-time shot was saved by Sokolowski with his legs.
From the ensuing corner, the Bulls equalized and, appropriately enough on Senior Night, it was two of the seniors being honored who combined for the goal, with Cowan heading in Gabe Salgado’s flighted corner kick.
The feeling at halftime was that the Bulls had received the warning they needed to up their game, but two Cardinals’ goals from defensive errors dampened any Bulls’ optimism.
The Cardinals took the lead when Nathan Stephens beat Aaron Ortega on the right wing before delivering a low cross to Simon Bird for the goal.
Bird’s second goal of the game was a strange affair. The junior forward collected the ball from a defensive clearance after Jared Vock inexplicably backed off a ball that was his to claim. The error still left Bird with a lot to do, but any chance of Vock redeeming his error ended when the junior forward carried the ball to the edge of the penalty area before chipping over Perkins with aplomb.
Kiefer said that defensive mistakes were responsible for all three Cardinals’ goals.
“Their goals came off poor individual defending,” Kiefer said. “No matter what formation you play you need to have guys that, when they get isolated, can defend. I thought we did a very poor job all over the field defensively.”
Kiefer, however, was quick to defend Vock for his part in the third Cardinals’ goal.
“I feel bad for Jared because he’s very tough on himself. I don’t know if there was a miscommunication between him and the other backs,” he said. “He’s a good player. Jared’s a guy you can build something around.”
Assessing the damage done to the Bulls’ conference chances, Kiefer said the task of qualification was now considerably more difficult.
“It puts a gun to our head in that I think we’ve got to win two of the next three to even have a chance at getting to the conference tournament,” he said.
Cowan concurred that the loss could have a disastrous impact on the Bulls’ season.
“We were in a position to where we could have taken charge of Conference USA,” Cowan said. “This really hurts us.”
During halftime, Cowan, along with other seniors Ben Cowherd, Brian Mullins, Salgado, Casey Stump and Jeff Thwaites were honored for their contribution to USF soccer. Cowan confessed that even notching his first goal of the season was scant consolation for defeat in his final home game.
“As a senior, deep down inside you want to win your last home game, in front of the fans who’ve been watching you over the years,” Cowan said.
Kiefer said the seniors in his team need look no further than themselves for allowing the Cardinals to spoil their party.
“I feel bad for the seniors as this is their last game at home and they go out on an awful feeling, but they have no one to blame but themselves,” Kiefer said.
Insult was added to injury as the Bulls succumbed to Oscar Gil’s 96th-minute golden goal at FIU Sunday.
Leading 2-0 from goals by West, his 11th of the season, and Salgado, the game turned after a Brandon Streicher foul saw the sophomore, in Kiefer’s view, harshly dismissed.
“The referee, in his judgment, felt it was a red-card tackle,” said Kiefer. “I don’t think anyone else in the entire stadium felt the same way, but he has his reasons.”
Spurred on by their numerical advantage, the Golden Panthers tied the game with goals from Juan Rivera and Billy Boswell before Gil’s overtime winner sealed the Bulls’ winless weekend.
Despite the result, Kiefer declared himself far happier with his team’s performance. The coach refused to ascribe the result as a consequence of Streicher’s dismissal, but pointed out that, in contrast to the Bulls’ two games in three days, FIU had come off a full week’s rest.
“It was 100 times better performance than Friday. They just ran out of gas,” Kiefer said.
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at email@example.com