Season preview: Bulls look to return to usual form in 2018

USF goalkeeper Christian Knight was voted the AAC preseason goalkeeper of the year by the AAC’s coaches. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLEGOUSFBULLS.COM

It’s a revenge tour of sorts for USF men’s soccer in 2018.

USF started conference play in 2017 with three straight wins, shooting to the top of the conference table. Those wins, however, would be the last of the season for the Bulls, who closed out their remaining conference schedule with two draws and two losses, dropping it from qualifying for the AAC Tournament for the first time since it joined the conference in 2013.

Now, the goal for USF in 2018 is clear, starting with it’s first regular season game on Friday at No. 7 Michigan State: Make it back into the AAC and NCAA Tournaments where it’s been a mainstay for the past decade.

“Every year our team has so much talent from top to bottom,” said goalkeeper Christian Knight. “Last year we had a ton of talent, too, we just had bad timing and went dry at the wrong time.”

Knight will be a key player if the Bulls hope to regain their place in the NCAA Tournament, which they’ve qualified for eight times the past 10 seasons. He was voted the AAC preseason goalkeeper of the year by the AAC’s coaches and is coming off a season where he led the conference in saves per game.

If the style of soccer played by USF last season and in its first preseason game remain the same, Knight will be more than just a shot stopper for the Bulls, also being called upon to regularly play the ball out of the back, distributing to the team’s fullbacks as USF aims to dominate possession.

“The team, the way USF plays, we like to keep the ball, keep possession,” Knight said. “Usually teams back off and let us do that because we’re good at it. It all starts by maintaining possession out of the back through me all the way to the top, always making smart passes.”

While Knight will be the Bulls’ force in the back, midfielder and native-German Adrian Billhardt, who was also named to a preseason all conference team by AAC coaches, will likely control play in the middle of the park.

He missed the Bulls’ first preseason game, a 4-1 win over Eastern Florida State College, with a  toe injury, but played in the Bulls’ latest preseason exhibition, a 3-1 win over the University of Tampa on Saturday night.

Billhardt scored five goals and had six assists in 15 games last season, both of which were team highs. He’s one of 16 returning players in 2018 and one of 14 returners who started at least one game in 2017. The Bulls’ welcomed in nine new freshman in 2018 to help replace the loss of eight seniors from the season prior.

Billhardt, Knight and the rest of the Bulls will open their regular season with two road games against MSU and No. 21 Michigan in the next week before returning back to Tampa for their home opener against Virginia Tech on Friday, Aug. 31.

USF was picked to finish fourth in the AAC preseason coaches poll, which would be just enough of a finish to place it in the AAC Tournament as its lowest seed. In Coach Bob Butehorn’s second season as coach, however, just barely qualifying for the tournament won’t be enough.

“I think we learned from that season a lot,” Billhardt said. “We tried to not have the same mistakes as last year. We just have to keep up the good work and I trust coach is doing the right thing to do to get us back where we belong, in the postseason.”