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Men’s soccer season preview

Senior midfielder Josue Monge (center) has five goals and two assists in his USF career thus far. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

After a long and complicated offseason caused by COVID-19, the USF men’s soccer team is finally ready to take the pitch for an unprecedented season.

An altered schedule, limited fan attendance and the season being in spring rather than fall have all been contributing factors to creating such an abnormal environment.

However, the Bulls and coach Bob Butehorn plan to kick things off against Temple on Saturday at 7 p.m.

Here are some key things to keep in mind as USF begins the new campaign.

Schedule highlights

Aside from a preseason exhibition match against FIU last Saturday, the Bulls will play a schedule composed strictly of AAC opponents. The team will also only play one game per week.

The Bulls will play five teams in total throughout the regular season, matching up with each squad twice, resembling a double-round-robin format. Those teams include Temple, SMU, UCF, Tulsa and Memphis.

Some of the more highly anticipated matchups include games against SMU and UCF, the programs picked to finish first and second, respectively, in the conference.

USF didn’t win any of the four previous meetings against SMU, including a semifinal loss in the AAC tournament last season. 

The last time the Bulls picked up a win over the Mustangs was in October 2016. USF will have a chance to put an end to its losing streak when it hosts SMU on Feb. 14 at Corbett Stadium and when it travels to Westcott Field on March 20.

As for the Knights, the Bulls lost their previous two meetings against them, each by one goal.

USF will play UCF twice this year, at UCF on Feb. 20 and at home March 27.

Players to watch

Following the departure of several key players from last year’s team, Bulls fans should keep an eye on senior midfielder Josue Monge. As one of the most experienced players on the team, Monge can expect to take on a larger leadership role.

“Personally, I always wanted to take leadership,” Monge said during the team’s media day. “Maybe I’ll have to step my game up for that. I think if I can just rely on my team and trust each other, we’ll have a pretty good season.”

In 2019, Monge scored one goal and provided one assist while captaining the team for much of the year.

Another player to focus on is senior winger Trey Jackson.

Jackson finished 2019 with three goals and two assists in 15 games. As he looks forward to this season, the senior wants to improve his game by being more clinical in front of the goal.

“I want to continue to be dangerous in front of the goal,” Jackson said. “I want to keep on adding more goals, more assists. Just helping the team any way I can. That’s something I’m always trying to do.”

A breakout candidate for the season to pay attention to is new signing Wilfredo Rivera who was added to the squad in the offseason.

Rivera, who plays as a winger, was signed from Orlando City B, who play in the USL League One. During his time with Orlando City B, Rivera made 15 appearances and scored three goals for the club. On the international stage, Rivera has earned three caps for the Puerto Rico U17 team. 

Season expectations

The preseason coaches poll released Jan. 25 tabbed the Bulls to finish third in the conference behind SMU and UCF, respectively.

The key difference for USF this season will be absence of several important players from last year’s squad.

Former goalkeeper and team leader Harrison Devenish-Meares graduated and is now playing professionally in Romania with Rapid București.

In addition to Devenish-Meares, defensive standouts Javain Brown and Avionne Flanagan were recently selected in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. Brown was picked 23rd overall by the Vancouver Whitecaps and Flanagan was selected 29th overall by FC Cincinnati.

Although it is still unclear whether or not Flanagan will take part in the upcoming season with the Bulls, the team will have to prepare for life without both players because MLS teams are allowed to begin preseason training in late February, a time in which the collegiate season will still be in progress.

Senior players like Monge and Jackson stepping into leadership roles will likely be key factors in helping both returning and new players get to where they need to be.

However, after recruiting more signings in the offseason, Butehorn is confident that every player will be important to the team. 

“I think they [new signings] are going to get some time,” Butehorn said. “I think the older guys feel their fit in the team. I think their contributions in the spring are going to be a lot in many different ways.”