After a 2019 season highlighted by record-breaking performances and program firsts, the USF women’s soccer team faced an unprecedented test, the longest and most uncertain offseason in history.
“It has been months since we’ve had a competitive game,” coach Denise Schilte-Brown said in a press conference last Thursday. “We’re just excited to get going.”
In a season both postponed and shortened due to the pandemic, USF will play a 10-game schedule with eight of those matchups against AAC opponents. Before the ball gets rolling at Florida Atlantic on Sunday, here is a wider look at the season to come.
Important matchups on the schedule
The Bulls hope to retain the momentum they built last campaign, but three opponents in particular appear to be real tests of fortitude.
On March 21, the War on I-4 will reignite as UCF comes to Corbett Stadium. The Bulls defeated the Knights last season in the semifinals of the conference tournament after losing to them earlier in the regular season.
In the penultimate match of the regular season on April 3, the Bulls play host to Memphis. The matchup versus the Tigers, who were picked to win the AAC this season, will be a rematch of last season’s conference championship game.
The Bulls should be confident heading into that match, as the team defeated Memphis 2-0 in the championship game last season.
That win was one of multiple highs USF experienced.
On top of a 16-5 regular-season record, the best in program history, the Bulls reached the third round of the NCAA tournament, another program first.
The one nonconference game that is certain to pique interest is a Feb. 27 meeting with Florida. After seven games in program history against the Gators without a win, USF finally got the gator off its back with a 4-2 victory in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Defensive players to watch
The USF defense will look to step up this season, as players lost to graduation will affect the offense more than the backline.
Returning to the defense is senior defender Chyanne Dennis. The AAC’s preseason defensive player of the year led the Bulls in minutes last season with 1,825 and contributed to seven shutouts.
Despite the preseason award, Dennis remained humble and showed appreciation for the accolade, while keeping it short and sweet.
“I’m just grateful for the recognition,” she said.
Joining her in defense will be junior Lucy Roberts and freshman Vivianne Bessette.
Schilte-Brown has given Bessette high praise and said she has high hopes for the freshman defender.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to have such a talent coming to USF,” Schilte-Brown said. “[Bessette] has leadership potential. We expect great things from her.”
It is likely that all three defenders see plenty of time on the pitch, whether in rotation or in a formation that can accommodate them together.
Offensive players to watch
Bombing forward on the pitch once again will be junior Sydny Nasello.
Nasello, along with Dennis, was recognized this preseason with an all-conference team selection. The forward mainly played the role of facilitator in 2019, leading the AAC with 10 assists, and will look to build chemistry with a new set of attacking players.
Evelyn Viens, the program’s all-time leading scorer, and midfielder Andrea Hauksdöttir graduated in 2020. Both have moved on to professional careers in France.
Schilte-Brown noted that the extended time off allowed for better conditioning and chemistry to be built with the new recruits.
“I loved having the entire fall to train my team, to get to know them and prepare them,” she said.
While it is uncertain which attacker will step in to fill the shoes of Viens and Hauksdöttir, a couple do stand out.
Sophomore forward Lizzy Spears did not see much of the field last season with just four appearances, but her high school scoring numbers are too prolific to ignore.
Spears scored 31 goals as a senior at Martin County High School, nearly two per game. She finished her high school career with 102 goal contributions across 70 games.
Similarly, freshman attacking midfielder Katie Moore from Batavia, New York, scored a school-record 60 goals across her high school career, including 25 as a senior.
While both players are still young, the examples of Nasello and Dennis, who both broke into the starting lineup as freshmen, prove that Schilte-Brown is willing to lean on young players if they can perform.
The preseason coaches poll released in late January picked the Bulls to finish third in the conference, behind Memphis and UCF, respectively.
When taking into account a new set of attackers and a possible shift in formation, there could be some growing pains for the women’s soccer team this season.
On the other hand, look for the experience on defense and the coaching acumen of Schilte-Brown to propel the Bulls past any rough patches and into strong contention for another conference championship.