The USF men’s soccer team had two reasons to celebrate Wednesday night, as the team was in the midst of a race to make the conference tournament that was even tighter than the presidential election on Tuesday.
First, East Carolina (6-11, 2-6 C-USA) came to the USF Soccer Stadium to get past the Bulls and into the tournament, but USF was able to secure its second consecutive tournament appearance by beating the Pirates 4-1.
Secondly, USF (9-4-2, 4-3-1 C-USA) was helped by the fact that fellow conference team UAB was able to beat Louisville in a late-season C-USA matchup.
Late in the UAB game, the Blazers (10-6-0, 6-2-0 C-USA) took the lead over the Cardinals (5-9-4, 2-5-1 C-USA) on a penalty kick, and held on for six more minutes for the 2-1 win.
The Bulls got off to a slow start, registering only three shots in the first 25 minutes, all of which came from freshman Christian Jimenez.
The Pirates jumped to an early lead on USF when, 27:59 into the game, a shot from midfielder Reed Avren bounced out of USF freshmen goalie Freddy Hall’s hands and ECU forward Terron Amos was able to put in the rebound.
With less than two minutes in the first half, the Bulls tied the game with a goal from sophomore captain Keeron Benito. Freshman Rodrigo Hidalgo sent a pass to Drew Helm, who was able to get the ball to Benito. The first-year captain took a 15-yard shot to nab his second goal of the season.
From the start of the second half, the Bulls bossed the Pirates around, as ECU surrendered three more goals on the night. The Pirates were also penalized 18 times, had five yellow cards, and accumulated only 16 shots for the entire game, while USF had 19.
The second goal for the Bulls was also Benito’s second of the night, and the game winner. Senior midfielder Erwin Suarez sent the ball to Brian Gil, who passed to Benito as he set the ball and was able to bury a 22-yard shot in the upper-right corner.
The scoring kept coming for the Bulls, as junior Hunter West recorded his sixth goal of the season on another upper-right-corner shot from 18 yards out, on a Kevin King pass. West is now tied with Hidalgo for the team lead in goals with six.
Late in the game, USF put the nail in the coffin as Jimenez scored his third goal of the season on an impressive long pass sent by defender Chris Raye. Helm was able to put the ball through two defenders to Jimenez, who sank an 8-yard shot past diving ECU goalie Brian Pope.
With the win, Hall was able to grab his first collegiate win in his third start. At the end of the game he was practically speechless.
“Feels good,” Hall said. “(This team) always got my back. (Coach George Kiefer) told me to just go out and do what you know you can do.”
Kiefer had a little more to say about his inexperienced goalkeeper, who was filling in for the suspended Dane Brenner, and who also had six saves on the game.
“I’m very happy for Freddy. That kid was off to a rocky road, and then to be put into a game that essentially we had to win … he did a good job,” Kiefer said.
Benito added about his freshman goalie, “Before the game, I thought (Freddy) was really shaky and stuff and I told him, ‘Freddy, don’t worry about it. Tonight will be your first win and I’m going to go all out for you and make sure you don’t lose.’ I felt it. Tonight was the night, and I told him ‘Tonight, you will win, Freddy.'”
Not only did Benito make sure his goalie got his first win of the year, he also wanted the hat trick that eluded him by one goal.
“(I wanted the hat trick) really, really badly,” Benito said. “And I know some of the guys, they tried to start stuff and its all good, but it’s just as good to get the win.”
Kiefer added about his sophomore captain, “I’m very happy for him. He’s been on the other side of some good chances. He put the team on his back tonight and moved the ball and got the goals for us, too.”
The Bulls have one game remaining for the season as Louisville will come to town on Saturday, but the team knows their new concern is the C-USA tournament. For the second year in a row, USF is the sixth seed out of six teams when the tournament starts Nov. 11 in Louisville.
Kiefer is proud of his team, as they cemented their playoff berth in a hard-fought game against Carolina, but said he never wanted to put too much pressure on his players.
“I thought it was good that we went down a goal and didn’t flinch, and in the first half we had chance after chance after chance. And to score one late in the first half,” Kiefer said. “We played really well and kept attacking.
“(The coaches and I) said we didn’t want to put pressure on (our players), we just wanted to go after this game. I think the guys did a good job of doing that.”