Bulls burn out early at C-USA

No matter how you dress it up, there’s nothing fun about exiting a tournament to an overtime goal.

Having adopted a relaxed approach to help them produce their best soccer, the Bulls’ Conference USA tournament came to a premature end Thursday with a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to Cincinnati in the opening match.

Goals from Hunter West and Gabe Salgado were not enough to stop the USF men’s soccer team from meeting the exact same end as their female counterparts, at the first hurdle to the Bearcats. A 35-yard overtime strike from Tim Brown sealed a 3-2 win and put the wraps on both the Bulls’ C-USA tournament hopes and any chance of making the NCAAs.

USF coach George Kiefer, who said the mood in the dressing room after the game was understandably low, praised the performance of his team and reserved kind words for his seniors.

“They worked very hard tonight. The whole team fought hard,” said Kiefer. “The seniors should be proud of their careers at USF.”While Cincinnati progresses to face Marquette in the tournament semifinal, the Bulls will return home with a final record of 11-7 in Kiefer’s first season.

In a rain-drenched seesaw affair at Robert R. Hermann Stadium in St. Louis, it was the Bulls who opened the scoring, as Hunter West, with an assist from Brandon Streicher, vindicated his selection as C-USA Freshman of the Year. West’s 37th minute goal, his 14th of the campaign, meant the Bulls went into halftime, to Kiefer’s surprise, with the lead.

“We got that goal against the run of play. We were quite shocked that we were up 1-0 at that stage,” said Kiefer.

It was a lead they could not hold, however, as goals from Scott Lyons in the 51st minute and Josh Gardener in the 71st minute turned the game around.

Instead of dropping their heads, the Bulls equalized within 40 seconds.

Gabe Salgado’s fifth goal of the season, again from an assist by Streicher, was enough to send the game into overtime.

With two recent overtime victories over UAB and TCU, the Bulls went into the sudden death period of play with optimism, but it was the Bearcats who notched the killer goal in the 97th minute. Unassisted, New Zealand midfielder Brown beat Perkins from 35 yards to send Cincinnati through and bring the Bulls’ season to an end. Kiefer was quick to absolve his goalkeeper from any blame.

“I give (Brown) a lot of credit. It’s tough to beat Troy from that range,” said Kiefer. “Troy was big-time tonight. He made four brilliant saves, some of which I don’t know how he made them.”Overall, although disappointed at their early exit, the coach said he did not dispute the outcome.

“It’s a little disappointing to end in the first-round game of the conference tournament,” he said. “I thought Cincinnati did a good job. They are a better team at the moment. They’ve beaten us twice now.”

Kiefer and his team will not be staying in St. Louis to nurse their wounds or to take in the remainder of the tournament. The coach, characteristically unbowed, is already planning for next season.

“I’m leaving at 5:40 a.m. to go and recruit,” Kiefer said.

Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at oracleodonnell@yahoo.com