Bulls open NCAA Tournament with FGCU rematch

Fans at Corbett Soccer Stadium celebrate Nazeem Bartman’s (9) go-ahead goal in the 52nd minute of the AAC Championship against Tulsa on Sunday. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

The USF men’s soccer team had its run in the NCAA Tournament cut short last season when it suffered an unexpected 2-1 overtime loss to Boston College at Corbett Soccer Stadium.

After earning a bye for the first round, USF midfielder Lindo Mfeka was red carded in the first half of USF’s second round match and the Bulls defense allowed two goals while playing a man down in the eventual loss.

“They had to play on Thursday and we got to wait until Sunday, so we were expecting them to be a little more tired than we were,” USF senior goalkeeper Spasoje Stefanovic said. “Unfortunately, we got a red card and that had a huge impact on the rest of the game.

“We were already thinking they’re tired, they’re not going to play their best. We were already thinking about the third round, so now we need to just think about the first round.”

Now, the Bulls are back in the NCAA Tournament with a chance at a more familiar foe, with FGCU visiting Corbett Soccer Stadium tonight at 7 p.m.   

USF, which began the season winless in its first five matches, turned around its season to win the AAC regular season title and qualify for the NCAA Tournament. 

The Bulls credit that turnaround to their 3-2 loss at FGCU on Oct. 11, in which coach George Kiefer said he saw his team grow together in the face of defeat, rather than pointing fingers as they had earlier in the season.

Since then, the Bulls have yet to lose a match. 

“I think we’re much better defensively (since the FGCU game), we have more options as far as guys who are healthy,” Kiefer said. “When you look at the group and watch them play, they’re just having more fun. To play college soccer and not have fun with it, it can be a long season. The vibe of the team is very good and we’re enjoying each other.”

This time around, USF will have now-healthy midfielders Marcus Epps and Gonzalo Rodriguez as well as forward Luis Garza at its disposal against the Eagles.

Even with players returning and the defense clicking (four shutouts in the past six matches), the Eagles’ offense could present a challenge, as it has been the only team to score multiple goals on the Bulls since a 4-1 loss at Maryland on Sept. 5. 

“They’re really good at going forward, they look like a very hungry team up front,” Stefanovic said. “So everything that is in the box, they make it hectic, they go for every ball. They make inside our 18-yard box, especially on set pieces, very hectic with a lot of players and they just try to sneak one in. 

“That’s how they scored actually when we played them, was on set piece goals. But, I can see that they are vulnerable on the back, so our counter-attack can really hurt them.”

Despite tying and eventually losing to Tulsa on penalty kicks to decide the AAC tournament championship, Kiefer said his team has been conditioned to play in games like these with the season on the line.

“You get to see a special side of your guys in lose-or-go-home matches. I like my guys, I really like my team,” Kiefer said. “Any time a group goes through adversity, learns from it, sticks together. It’s been a tougher road to get here than other roads. I think whenever things are a little tougher and you get through them, you appreciate them a little more.

“But I’ll tell you what, we can hit you from the left, we can hit you from the right, we can hit you in the middle. We have a lot of weapons and I don’t think you can focus on shutting out one side. We didn’t have that all year because a lot of guys were missing here and there. It’s a fun team to coach because there’s a lot of ways to skin the cat.”

With a second chance at beating the Eagles tonight at Corbett Soccer Stadium, Stefanovic and the rest of the Bulls are looking to win their first NCAA Tournament game since USF moved past FGCU 5-3 on penalty kicks in the first round of 2012. 

“Playing at Corbett for me, it’s really emotional to be honest because this could be my last game at Corbett and not just me, we have eight seniors who it could be their last game,” Stefanovic said. “There’s a lot of us on the team, so it only makes (tonight) that much more special.”