With the Conference USA tournament looming on the No. 21 USF men’s soccer team, the players know they have to pull their game together. The team has lost three games in a row — conference games. Even lowly Marquette received its first conference win Saturday against the Bulls and brought the team to a new level of defeat.
As the nine-game unbeaten streak collects dust, the team will now worry about the last four games of the season. Two of those games are C-USA opponents, and for some players, the next week and half is their last shot at being champions.
Senior Kevin King has spent over half of his collegiate career at USF when he transferred after two years at Tyler Junior College in Texas. As the only senior starter on the team, he knows his time is running out, but he still enjoys the pressure of the clock winding down.
“(Missing the tournament) would be devastating to me,” King said. “Being that I am a senior, (I) definitely want to go to the conference tournament and actually be in the conference tournament because I’ve been working since this summer and I think we have a good chance.
“I look at those three games that we lost, if we can move forward and forget about it, because we’ve got young guys and if they can move on then we can be a great team and be in the conference tournament.”
King has been counting on his younger teammates all season because those teammates will be back next year. The Bulls are a young squad who are going to do nothing but get better as only five seniors move on at the end of this year.
But just because there is a light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t mean every player is going to wait. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s something the USF soccer players certainly lack.
Goalkeeper Dane Brenner recently sat out two games for freshman Freddy Hall, who has goalkeeper experience with Bermuda’s National Team. Hall kept Brenner on his toes and even worked hard enough to earn his first start against conference counterpart Cincinnati. Hall allowed five goals in his two starts, but USF coach George Kiefer went chose experienced sophomore Brenner to play after tormenting himself over which player would finish out the season.
Kiefer doesn’t regret anything, especially his decision to pull Brenner halfway through the season with his 0.73 goals against average. And his players don’t regret it either. Most players will stand by their coach, and the men’s soccer team is no exception.
“If I had to (put Freddy in) again, I’d do it,” Kiefer said. “Freddy’s a good goalkeeper and he didn’t cost us those two games, and I think anyone in the program would tell you that.”
Brenner is one of the players who always stood by his coach’s decision, but he can’t be anything but happy to be back in goal and, more importantly, happy with his backup goalkeeper.
“It’s great. It’s always great to be starting,” Brenner said. “I’m glad (Freddy) kept working hard. Most people will go in a hole because they aren’t starting, but I’m glad he pushed me and still pushes me.”
The players, young and old, all know that not one person, especially the goalkeeper, is to blame for the skid the team is experiencing. And Kiefer knows every aspect of USF’s game needs work.
“It’s just a matter of everybody being accountable and showing up. When everybody is accountable and showing up and has a good game, we’ve been a very good team,” Kiefer said. “We’ve struggled in the transition from attacking to defending. It’s no added pressure; it’s really just about everyone showing up and doing their job for this team, and this is a very, very talented South Florida team.”
The three conference losses for the Bulls couldn’t have come at the worse time.
The Conference USA tournament, which begins Nov. 11, takes only the top six teams, and the Bulls are bringing up the rear at sixth with Louisville and East Carolina knocking on their back door. Those two teams are USF’s last two games of the season, which USF must win.
Freshman Rodrigo Hildalgo knows that he has been learning from the losses and entire season to date. For him, he is just growing as a player and hopes to continue, even if the season ends in disappointment.
“This is like a lesson, something we can learn from, so that in two weeks, we can be in Kentucky fighting for the title,” Hildalgo said. “I’d rather give up the goals now and then win the tournament than be winning every game and losing in the tournament.”
While Hidalgo has three years left to learn the lessons, other players such as Brenner and King have had the hard lessons already, and for Brenner, missing the conference tournament is something that he just won’t let happen.
“Not a chance,” Brenner said. “I’m trying to concentrate on defense, on things that we can control, and don’t get upset when something happens. Just stress the positive to stay in the game. Anything to help the team.”
Hildalgo, as well as other players, has learned the lessons. And they all have learned them from Kiefer. He will be the ball that keeps this team rolling into what will be the coach’s third consecutive conference tournament berth.
“The team helps the most, to be honest with you,” Hildalgo said.
“Coach Kiefer has just been a huge factor right now, for the way we’ve approached this state positively. Some of us have broken down, but we pick it up, and hopefully we can keep it up.”