For the first time in 523 days, the USF women’s soccer team walked off the field in defeat.
A 2-0 second-round NCAA tournament loss to No. 7 seed Texas A&M marked the end of the road this season for the Bulls, who finished the stunted 2021 campaign with an overall record of 10-1-2 and an undefeated 6-0-1 in conference play.
The first loss of the season, however, didn’t happen without slight controversy. In an incident in the second half when the Bulls were down 1-0 and had a chance to score the equalizer, junior forward Sydny Nasello collided with a Texas A&M player in the penalty area and crumpled to the grass, expecting a penalty to be awarded.
The referee waved her off and insisted play continue, much to the chagrin of the Bulls’ sideline.
“I think that we had control of the match for [about] 70-75% of it,” coach Denise Schilte-Brown said postgame. “I think it was our game to win. [I’m] a little bit frustrated with the no-call on the PK for us, it would’ve evened it up a little bit.
“I’m not arguing the [earlier] PK [called] against us, but I just think that [no-call] changes the tides of the game, but those things happen. At the end of the day we played a really good side and didn’t get the result [we wanted].”
Coming off a 3-0 win in the first round of the tournament just three days prior, and yet to lose this year, the Bulls played with their usual confidence in the first half. They withstood the aggressive Aggies for about 10 minutes before settling into a familiar pace, controlling possession and showing composure on the ball.
“I felt like we had the majority of the ball for the [better part] of the first half and had momentum going into the second half,” Schilte-Brown said.
Toward the end of the first half, however, the Bulls nearly went down a goal. A corner kick in the 41st minute beat junior goalkeeper Sydney Martinez before being miraculously deflected not once, but twice off the goal line by senior midfielder Fanny Pelletier-Laroche and senior defender Paula Leblic.
The Bulls were used to a scoreless first half, as was the case in their round-one matchup against Central Connecticut State, but the Aggies had tested them more than any other opponent this season.
“We knew the Aggies were going to be a good team,” Schilte-Brown said. “I think they were the toughest team we’ve played this season, and it showed.”
The second half was marred by two uncharacteristic defensive mistakes, forced by an energetic A&M press. Just four minutes into the second period, the Aggies found their opportunity.
Junior defender Lucy Roberts fouled a player inside the penalty area after a poor touch led to a loss of possession. Aggie forward Barbara Olivieri stepped up to lash the penalty kick over Martinez to give A&M the lead. Although rare, it was not the first time this year the Bulls had to play from behind.
“We responded really well [to the first goal],” Schilte-Brown said. “We had full belief that we were still going to win the game.”
The response at that point was led by Nasello. The typically energetic forward kept searching for openings to level the score. On multiple occasions she beat defenders off the dribble in an attempt to find a teammate in space or the back of the net herself.
Nasello’s best opportunity to score likely came in the aforementioned no-call. She was approximately 10 yards from the goal when she was seemingly tripped up by an Aggies’ player.
Later in the 65th minute, Texas A&M tapped into its energy reserve once again, at the expense of Roberts for a second time. The speedy Laney Carroll beat Roberts to a ball near the corner. She burst her way into the box to find Olivieri for her second goal of the day.
The Bulls started to show signs of fatigue after falling behind by two goals, and that was only compounded by a Texas A&M team that had weeks of rest prior to the match.
“The second goal was a bit of a backbreaker because you’re tired, we didn’t have the rest,” Schilte-Brown said. “They were on 20 days rest, and their momentum started picking up after that second goal. I feel like the belief shifted at that moment.”
Up until Friday’s clash, the Bulls had conceded just four goals in 12 matches this season and never allowed more than one goal in any single match. The final 20 minutes of the game were uncharted territory for USF, fighting to salvage its undefeated season in hopes of winning a national title.
“The energy wasn’t there [after going down 2-0]. We had enough services, enough corners, enough crosses, but they defended well,” Schilte-Brown said.
Schilte-Brown will now have to contend with a short offseason before soccer resumes as a normal fall sport next school year. However, the Bulls will not be losing all of their seniors. Pelletier-Laroche is among a small group that will move on from USF this offseason along with Ashley Meade and Aideen O’Donoghue. Every other member of the senior class will be returning, confirmed by Schilte-Brown.
“The rest of the seniors are returning,” she said. “I think we have a very, very bright future. We’re going to be a team that you don’t want to play next year.”