The South Florida men’s soccer team is about to face the biggest challenge in its history, defending national champions and No. 1-seeded Wake Forest, in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. If the Bulls win, they will go to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
The Demon Deacons are undefeated and an offensive juggernaut. They average 3.7 goals per match and have only been held scoreless once in a tie against the Duke Blue Devils on Oct. 18.
They have 12 shutouts in 20 matches and haven’t allowed more than two goals in a match this season.
How do you beat a great team, on the road, in an elimination game? If the Bulls want to pull off the upset, they should focus on the following:
Silence the home crowd in first 20 minutes
“We will have our adrenaline pumping in the first 20 minutes, but we have to keep our heads cool and have possession of the ball, not commit any stupid mistakes that will put us behind in the score early,” said USF backup goalkeeper Diego Restrepo, who has played with the U.S. U-20 national team and has experience playing in intimidating matches.
Coach George Kiefer said Wake Forest doesn’t have much respect for USF, but USF can earn that respect by showing why it is one of the best defensive teams in the country and turning the match into a low-scoring affair.
If Wake Forest can score in the first 20 minutes, it will play comfortably the rest of the match with the crowd behind it, making it tough for the Bulls to mount a comeback.
If USF can keep Wake Forest from scoring, then things should get interesting as the Demon Deacons slowly lose their patience and the crowd gets quieter, giving the Bulls a chance to strike at the right time to win the match.
Win 50-50 balls
Restrepo said 50-50 balls, which are balls in the air that both teams have an opportunity to gain possession of, are “critical” for USF since the Bulls will probably try to keep possession of the ball and play “keep away” from the Wake Forest offense to chew time off the clock.
Defensive midfielder and captain Francisco Aristeguieta will be a vital part of claiming those balls and making sure they have a safe destination. One miscue could be fatal, since one bad pass could lead to a Wake Forest counterattack.
“Wake Forest will apply a lot of pressure on us, so we have to do what we always do and pass the ball around fast and accurately,” Aristeguieta said.
Take advantage of free kicks
Kiefer, Restrepo and Aristeguieta agree that Wake Forest will apply asphyxiating pressure on USF, so the cure is giving the defense time to breathe and capitalize on the few chances USF will have.
What the Bulls will need to do is recover the ball, look for a foul in or close to the box and set up they free kick slowly. Then, they should move the ball around as the kicker sets it up, take slow steps back to take up extra time and make the free kick count.
One good center into the box or a well-kicked ball into the net could make all the difference in the match, and that applies to Wake Forest’s free kicks as well.
If Bulls defenders foul the Demon Deacons close to the box, they are just giving them a free chance to score.
Don’t pay attention to the referee
Restrepo said Kiefer always tells his players not to pay attention to the referee and pay attention to the match. The Bulls will need to do just that Saturday to win.
The Bulls should play with a warm heart but a cool head, going after every ball as if it was the last one of the match.
The Demon Deacons may try to get under the Bulls’ skin and make a USF defender earn an early yellow or red card. The Bulls should avoid that by keeping the ball away from Wake Forest and playing a clean match.
Leave everything on the field
Wake Forest is the team that will have all the pressure as it defends its title at home in front of a crowd that expects it to win.
All the Bulls have to do is have fun on the field, remember soccer is a game and that this may be their only chance to be at this stage, so they should make the most of it.
They will need to run down every single ball, no matter how much of a lost cause it may seem.
Above all, the Bulls must give everything, win or lose, and finish the match with no regrets.