One glance at the USF men’s soccer team’s schedule is all one needs to understand how crucial non-conference play will be this season.
Beginning with Sunday night’s showdown against third-ranked Georgetown at Corbett Stadium, the Bulls will face three consecutive ranked opponents — including No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 14 Indiana — after its opener against Missouri State on Friday.
“I think every player wants to play good teams, and we will be battle-tested after two weeks of the season,” coach George Kiefer said during the team’s media day Aug. 6. “We will know where we stand up with other teams that will be capable of getting to a College Cup, so we look forward to those things.”
For a team that missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in seven years, a victory in any one of the games could mean a significant leap in RPI and, potentially, a ranking of its own.
For the Bulls, who defeated Division II University of Tampa 2-1 in an exhibition match Saturday, it starts and ends with junior goalkeeper Spasoje Stefanovic.
Stefanovic, voted the AAC’s preseason goalkeeper of the year, finished last season with a miniscule 1.00 goals against average in all 20 games.
Kiefer said the Serbian native will only get better against higher competition.
“You can point out some games where he was excellent. You look at how he played in certain games throughout the year, it’s that every game — every game,” Kiefer said. “I think it’s really difficult (for him) coming from a different country and getting acclimated. Preseason and — let’s face it — college soccer, for the amount of games you play in such a short window, even the American kids aren’t used to that. So, to have that experience and him knowing what to expect, I think you’ll see him be better just for that.
“And in my opinion, he’s one of the best goalkeepers in the country already.”
Against ranked competition last season, USF was 0-2-1 with losses against No. 8 Washington in the regular season and No. 24 Tulsa in the AAC semifinal.
USF hasn’t defeated a top-25 opponent since a 2-0 triumph over 20th-ranked SMU in 2011.
But with help of returning stars like junior midfielder Lindo Mfeka, the team’s active scoring leader with 27 points and a unanimous selection for first-team preseason All-AAC, sophomore midfielder/forward Eduardo Maceira and Creighton transfer Brendan Hines-Ike, the Bulls believe they are ready to change that.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” junior midfielder Graham Smith said. “We play great teams. … We want to play the best teams, because we want to prove that we’re the best team in the country.”