Someone should have told them they were playing Brazil.
Having added perennial C-USA contender UAB to its already impressive list of wins Friday, the USF men’s soccer team fell to a sucker punch from middle-of-the-table DePaul Sunday. Close on the heels of a defeat at the hands of Louisville Oct. 25, the Bulls, unstoppable in big matches, just can’t seem to stop choking on their bread-and-butter games.
It’s a trait that, according to midfielder Jeff Thwaites, is doing serious damage to the Bulls’ season.
“We seem to have a trend of letting down after a big win – the atmosphere is less, it’s harder to get up for the game,” he said. “We don’t take (the opposition) for granted, but we keep shooting ourselves in the foot with losses like that.”
While a victory against DePaul would have almost certainly assured the Bulls’ place in the C-USA tourney, USF coach George Kiefer’s team will travel to TCU Friday knowing that anything less than a victory could bring its season to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Since teams with identical records are compared on the basis of their head-to-head results, ironically it is the Bulls’ failure against teams below them in the conference that could be their undoing.
“The teams that we’ve lost to are teams that we’ll have the same record as if we lose, so it’s a definite must win,” said Thwaites.
The must-win situation, the senior said, seems tailor-made for a team that performs better under pressure.
“That’s the only way our team can react and play good – when we’re under pressure,” Thwaites said. “We play better when our backs are against the wall.”
The weekend began well for the Bulls as they dented UAB’s tourney chances with a winner in the second period of overtime, described by Kiefer as one of the best goals he has seen in a long time.
Ben Cowherd’s 40-yard pass was volleyed across goal by Gabe Salgado, setting up Hunter West’s diving header, which found the back of the net, triggering a raucous celebration at West Campus Field.
“It was crazy,” said Thwaites. “We threw (West) on the ground and jumped on top of him.”
The Bulls’ achievement in Alabama was all the more admirable considering they were handicapped by the erroneous dismissal of Aaron Paroulek for a second yellow card two minutes into overtime. The referee later admitted his error, which at least meant Paroulek was eligible for selection against DePaul.
“It was a miscommunication – he carded the wrong guy, but it didn’t help us during the game. We played down a guy in overtime,” Kiefer said.
Acutely conscious of the need to post a shutout, the Bulls’ win against UAB was founded on a disciplined defensive performance.
“We played tough defensively, and countered to make our opportunities,” Thwaites said.
The performance of Brian Mullins, who has played all season with the aftereffects of knee surgery, warranted special praise, Kiefer said.
“He’s playing with a knee that’s all torn apart, but he brings a lot of fire to the team. He’s a warrior,” said Kiefer.
In contrast to mild Alabama, cold and windy conditions greeted the Bulls in Chicago Sunday as the Bulls, struggling to cope with a narrow soccer field described by Thwaites as “difficult,” became DePaul’s sixth straight home victim.
Although they produced several chances, including a strike on goal from Brandon Streicher that fully extended the DePaul goalkeeper, the Bulls had no answer to substitute Mike Fenton’s first career goal in the dying moments of the first half. Fenton seized a loose ball in the Bulls’ penalty area following a Luke Rojo corner kick.
Throughout the match, the Bulls struggled to adapt their normal cohesive passing style to the conditions Thwaites said.
“Due to the conditions we had to change our style and play a little more direct,” Thwaites said. “This played into (DePaul’s) hands.”
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org