The faces may be the same, but the No. 7 USF men’s soccer team certainly isn’t the same team that posted a 7-8-3 record last season.
Now the Bulls are gaining national attention as they are ranked in all four college polls and one of only five remaining Division I college soccer teams in the country that are still without a loss.
Through nine games, the Bulls are undefeated, have scored 17 goals and recorded five shutouts, which include a four-game-plus scoreless streak . Last year, USF only scored 25 goals and had two shutouts for the entire 2003 season.
Coach George Kiefer is giving all of the hype and attention the cold shoulder. He realizes it is still early in the season and his team’s real task is to worry about winning C-USA, not what the statistics portray.
“We were ranked in preseason so I don’t think there’s any added pressure,” Kiefer said. “I never like to compare one (year) to the other. Definitely this one has bought into what we are trying to do and the chemistry is very good.
“If you look at the guys on the field, off the field, they work for each other. They help each other. They get along and they believe in each other.”
Last season, USF made its way into the C-USA tournament by the skin of its teeth. The Bulls were the fifth seed out of six teams and lost 2-1 in the first round to Charlotte, a team USF has already beaten this season.
“The team is so much more dedicated this year,” goalkeeper Dane Brenner said. “People are working harder for each other, working more as a team. People are coming off the bench who are helping us a lot. Overall, everyone is willing to work more for the team.”
Experienced players such as Brenner, senior forward Kevin King and junior Hunter West are trying to forget the bad taste of the worst season in Kiefer’s three-year tenure. They are also trying to ignore the added pressure of being nationally ranked. But at the same time, the nine-game unbeaten streak still remains in their minds.
“It is just another thing in the back of your mind,” Brenner said. “Now you’re competing for that and for every game. Now, every game means something because we have a winning streak, we have a record and people at the university are looking to us.”
“I don’t think there’s added pressure, because we each know what it’s all about. We could come out here any other day and lose a game, but we keep focusing on doing what we are doing and we’ll do good, while something like the winning streak just makes me want to win more and more,” King said.
West is just focused on the next game.
“Being ranked is something we deserve but we just take one game at a time. So, I wouldn’t say there’s any added pressure,” West said. “I think we’re definitely a target for other teams, especially in the conference, because we’re still undefeated this year. (The winning streak) will always be in the back of your mind, but we just take one game at a time.”
West, in his third year with the team and his first as the captain, notices the differences in his previous years and the current one. He feels that the team has succeeded from everyone’s hard work and dedication, especially from the coaching staff.
“Last year we had a lot of offensive powers and talent,” West said, “but just weren’t willing to work on defense. That’s what wins championships: defense. I think that the ability to recover is a big reason why we’re doing so well this year and shutting teams down.”
“(The) coaching staff’s approach has really been flexible with us,” Brenner said. “They work with us a ton of times. I know there are hours and hours on film. They work really late.”
With the conference tournament in striking distance, USF (7-0-2, 3-0-1 C-USA) will also start focusing on one of its other goals besides C-USA victories: the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls’ last tournament appearance was in 1998, which ended with a 2-1 loss to William and Mary.
“I believe we have like nine goals or something and that’s definitely on the back of my mind,” Brenner said. “We all want a ring, so we want to win the conference tournament and get that automatic bid.”
King added, “I think that the seniors this year are willing to put extra effort because this is our last year. The seniors last year, they didn’t care. The seniors this year are focused to go to the NCAA tournament.”
Kiefer prefers not to plan as far ahead as his players, but knows his players well and setting those realistic goals will help as the season goes on.
“Way out in the distance is our goal to get to conference tournament,” Kiefer said. “When we get there, we’ll set goals for that, and if we do well there, we’ll set goals for after that.
“I think it will be difficult for teams to shut us down. They are really going to have to concentrate on that because we have five or six guys on the attack that can really hurt you.”