When I look around campus these days, I see more support for USF athletics than ever before. There is one group of athletes, however, that has won often without its share of praise or exposure.
Last Friday night the soccer team packed USF soccer stadium with a record-setting 2,431 people for its game against a University of Connecticut team ranked No. 2 in the country. The result was an entirely different atmosphere surrounding the field – one that the soccer stadium doesn’t see often enough.
A year ago, the team averaged just over 900 fans per home game in a stadium that holds 4,000. This year, the numbers are up slightly with an average of just over 1,200 people per game. That number is still significantly lower, however, than that of the Bulls’ Big East counterparts.
“That’s been an area of focus,” coach George Kiefer said. “I thought when I came here that attendance at our games was one of the areas that needed the most improvement. I think it really helps the players if there is a lot of energy and excitement around the team on campus.”
For Friday’s match against the Huskies, the bleachers behind each goal were marked as student-only sections and the student body didn’t disappoint. The small section of painted bodies and bull-horn hats provided the kind of support that Kiefer would like to see at every home game.
“It has an effect on game day,” Kiefer said. “We go to all these Big East schools and the crowds are always good. For the players, it’s good if we can get that kind of support at home. It’s huge for recruiting, and it’s huge for the program.”
The Bulls have had no shortage of success at home despite the crowd often being small. Since Kiefer took over in 2002, the team is 28-8-7 at home. The old adage “everyone loves a winner” hasn’t held true for this team, as its success has not translated into a major increase in attendance.
As a soccer fan, I watch games on television where the crowds are an integral part of the contests. Whether singing chants, banging on drums or blowing into any instrument they can get through the gates, fans have a direct effect on the flow of the game. So I ask, why not here? Why not now?
Given the seating capacity of USF soccer stadium, the quality of the team and the overall excitement generated by USF athletics, it’s difficult to understand why students here haven’t shown up in larger numbers in support of one of the top soccer programs in the country.
At the collegiate level, students around the nation at campuses like UConn, Maryland and the University of California, Santa Barbara have been showing up at soccer stadiums in increasing numbers, providing a better atmosphere for some of the country’s finest athletes. Last year, the Huskies averaged more than 3,000 fans per game – a number that led all NCAA Division I teams.
What USF sports fans may not realize when they look at the school’s effect on the sport of soccer is just how good of a soccer school USF is. The number of players to have come through USF on their way to playing professionally is higher than any other program the school has.
In its history, USF has sent 42 players beyond collegiate play. There are four Bulls active in Major League Soccer and one playing overseas. Last year alone, the program sent four players into the professional ranks, whether it was to MLS, the United Soccer League or Europe.
So where is the support for one of the most successful sports programs this school has? Where are the never-ending drums, fight songs and post-match celebrations for the soccer team?
Well, the answer is it’s coming. The enthusiasm for USF sports that is infecting the campus – and the entire city of Tampa – will find its way into the soccer stadium as well. Despite losing to Connecticut, students who attended Friday’s match got to see firsthand how good this Bulls team is, and how exciting they are to watch.
More importantly, fans in the student section had an opportunity to bring a different element to the game and the players. Whether it was catching Bulls forward Jordan Seabrook, who leaped into the crowd after scoring the first goal of the match, or heckling the
opposing goalkeeper, fans were vital in creating a more enthusiastic environment for the team to play in.
As USF athletics gains recognition on a national scale, its number of fans will grow. Aside from football, the soccer field may be one of the more interesting and fun venues for USF fans to make their mark on collegiate sports. All that needs to happen is for more students to explore the idea.
“I’ll go on record right now as saying we’ll break that attendance record again this year,” Kiefer said.
Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.