All coach George Kiefer’s team needed was a chance.
That’s how the USF men’s soccer team is approaching its game at in-state rival UCF on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Bulls (9-5-4, 4-3-2), who were bounced by West Virginia in the first round of the Big East tournament Nov. 3, were on the edge of missing the tournament for the first time in four years before earning one of 26 at-large bids Monday night.
“You look at what got us here, it’s beating some of the best teams in the country,” said Kiefer, who led the Bulls to their first Big East championship in 2008. “That’s literally what got us in. This team’s capable of playing with anybody. Our game is a difficult game. Sometimes the ball can just go the wrong way even when you do everything right.”
The Bulls, ranked No. 13 entering the season, had a marquee win against then-No. 9 Ohio State on Sept. 16, beating the Buckeyes 2-1 in Fort Myers at the FGCU Classic.
Later in the season, after an unbeaten streak of seven games, the Bulls lost to then-No. 2 Louisville (who went on to win the Big East tournament) 2-1 in double overtime Oct. 23.
And though USF may not have had the stretch run they anticipated – the Bulls lost three of their last four games – Kiefer said his team is hungry.
“Everybody is 0-0-0 right now,” Kiefer said. “It’s a rebirth. Down the stretch, we played some of the top teams in the country. We lost to the No. 1 seed in double overtime and had some things not go our way down the stretch.”
With the long layoff, Kiefer said the break has been beneficial to rest some key players who have dealt with injury late in the season.
Notably, midfielder Bernardo Anor, who leads the Bulls in points (15) and goals (6) this season, missed two games late in the season but is expected to play Thursday. Kiefer said midfielders Leston Paul and Shawn Chin were hobbled a bit late but expects the Bulls to be at full strength Thursday.
“In some years, it might’ve been a concern, but we were so banged up late in the season, we gave some of those guys four or five days off,” Kiefer said. “The rest has been good for us.”
UCF (11-4-3, 4-1-3) is coming off a 2-1 loss to Tulsa in the first round of the Conference USA tournament.
The winner faces No. 10 seed Michigan (14-4-3) on Sunday at 2 p.m.