This is the team.
Or at least it has to be.
I mean, it was expected to be.
It’s hard to decide with the men’s soccer team. One day, it’s upset by Fordham. The next week, the Bulls upset Notre Dame. Then they go on a two-game losing streak to DePaul and Rutgers, two Big East teams with a combined 5-9 conference record.
That’s not supposed to happen. Not for this team.
This was the team that was supposed to bring in the first Big East trophy of any kind to USF’s very empty, very hollow, very dusty trophy case sitting on the first floor of the Athletic Facility. It nearly happened last season when the team was runner-up to Connecticut.
This was the team on the verge of repeating its most successful season ever under coach George Kiefer, made it to its 11th NCAA Tournament appearance and was dragged kicking and screaming from a 7-6 overtime/shootout thriller against Virginia.
It returned 10 starters, brought in the 10th best recruiting class according to College Soccer News and had the approval of the rest of the Big East by being voted to finish first place in the Red Division.
But everything is just a little off.
The Bulls are in third place in the Red Division with a 3-2-2 conference record, averaging just 1.16 goals per game. That’s just 14 goals in 12 games.
Not exactly the expectations placed on the team’s shoulders.
“We definitely have our backs to the wall,” senior goalkeeper Dane Brenner said. “We’re still in our own driver seat. We’ll probably still finish first or second, and now we have to get things going the way we want them.”
What’s good about this team is that it’s straightforward. The players tell you how they feel, what they want and where they feel they are going to go.
“We do expect to finish at the top of the division,” Brenner said. “I think we play well no matter what, but yeah, I think we like being underdogs. We come out with more fight then.”
What’s even better is they, the coaches and players, write it all down, spell it out before the season starts.
The problem is, people want last year’s season to be topped. And Kiefer will hear none of that.
“The expectations and the rank have nothing to do with the play,” Kiefer said. “We get plenty of people back for our last five games. And sure, this team is scratching and clawing a little right now, but it would be foolish to look at everything else and those expectations.”
This team the laid-back philosophy you’d expect if you spent five minutes with Kiefer.
It’s his style, and it’s worked. Kiefer is 47-28-9 in the middle of his fifth season at USF.
He’s worked the team hard, kept them loose and recruited players from all over the country, including players who have national teams and Major League Soccer turning heads.
But this is now. The Bulls need better results – 2005 results. Despite their claims they don’t dwell on the past, they still need to go up the ladder, not slide down to the bottom of the chute.
And with these players, this team, those expectations should all be met.
There are just five games left. Four of them are conference games, and the next is against No. 15 Cincinnati, which is also in first place in the Red Division.
“From day one, we have said, ‘How can we compare this year’s team to last year’s?'” Kiefer said. “All teams have new players, new games, even we do. We’ve been a little unlucky, and I still have a good feeling about the team.”
More than likely these guys are right. The Bulls will finish strong, do well in the tournament and be a no-brainer selection for a second straight tournament appearance.
Third place is good enough to make the Big East Tournament. But the Bulls have to expect more from themselves, because it can be better.
“Anything less than last year will be a disappointment,” junior midfielder Simon Schoendorf said. “Because then as an athlete you are always striving for something better, for something more. And if we are satisfied with what happened in the past, what motivation do you have to better?”
One goal a game just won’t do.
Missing the NCAA Tournament won’t either.
The Big East expects more.
Time to expect better from them.