Thursday’s road trip to UCF will mark the halfway point in the conference schedule for USF women’s soccer, with some of the strongest opponents yet to come.
Expectations for the Bulls (7-2-2, 2-0-1 AAC) this fall were as high as can be. The team was voted as preseason favorites to repeat as champion in a league coaches’ poll.
USF currently sits on top of the conference standings with Memphis (8-1-1, 2-0 AAC) keeping pace in the race to host the conference tournament. The Bulls hosted it at Corbett Stadium last season in the spring.
Let’s take a look at the 2021 season as USF approaches the home stretch.
USF beats ECU 3-2 in overtime (Sept. 16)
It’s become clear that, if nothing else, this team will provide late drama. The Bulls have played four games that required overtime (with golden goal rules, no less).
The conference opener against the Pirates was the most frenetic by far. For 60 minutes, the Bulls played from behind after an incredible ECU goal from long range.
Senior defender Lucy Roberts evened the score with just six minutes left, only to see yet another ECU goal from distance give the Pirates the lead again less than three minutes later.
Not to be outdone, junior forward Sydny Nasello fired her own shot from outside the box just 75 seconds later to send the game to overtime.
In the extra period, senior forward Chloe Zamiela ended the contest with a headed goal to give the Bulls a walk-off victory in a wild matchup.
USF falls to LSU 2-1 (Aug. 26)
Going into the game, the Bulls were perfect on the season and hadn’t lost a regular-season game since Halloween 2019.
A 65th-minute penalty converted by Nasello tied things at 1-1 in an even matchup against an LSU team that, like the Bulls, was pushing for top 25 status.
With time ticking down and overtime looking a certainty, the Tigers pounced on a late defensive error with just seconds left to steal the victory.
On balance, this game felt like it deserved overtime, as both teams took 11 shots and each goalkeeper made four saves.
All it took was one momentary lapse in focus to snap a regular-season streak that lasted 697 days.
A down year for the defense
The Bulls’ defense hasn’t kept up the stellar level of consistency seen in the shortened 2020-21 season.
Opponents have scored 11 goals in 11 matches this season, compared to last season’s defense that allowed just six goals in 13 matches, including a program-record nine shutouts.
It must be pointed out that the Bulls’ non-conference schedule this season has been much tougher, specifically featuring four teams from the SEC.
Perhaps it’s unfair then to compare this unit to a historically great one, but the Bulls lost none of their regular defenders in the offseason. They returned 2020 All-AAC First Team members in senior defender Chyanne Dennis, freshman defender Vivianne Bessette and junior goalkeeper Sydney Martinez.
Either way, it’s odd to see so many shots get past Martinez and into the back of her net. There are certainly improvements to be made on that end of the pitch.
MVP so far
Whether it’s her relentless drive to create scoring chances or her propensity for late heroics, the AAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year is the easy choice here.
The Land O’ Lakes native leads the team with eight goals and 18 points, and is second to senior defender Paula Leblic in the assist category with two. Her 11 starts in as many games means she is second on the team in terms of minutes played.
Perhaps the most astounding stat, however, is her shots and shots on goal. With 52 shots, she more than doubles the next highest player on the team, and her 29 shots on goal are over triple the next best.
More than just the numbers, the eye test will tell the same story. Nasello is nominally a forward, but will drift wherever on the pitch she sees fit to receive the ball or affect play. The offense runs through her and the attention she demands from defenders shows it.
The remaining games on the schedule include three of the top five teams in the conference standings.
A home game against SMU on Oct. 10, just days after the War on I-4, might prove tricky for the Bulls. The Mustangs are an impressive 7-1-1 over their first nine games.
The standout test will be the next road trip to Memphis on Oct. 17, a matchup that may decide which team is the conference regular season champion and host of the tournament.
The final regular-season home game Oct. 21 will welcome Cincinnati in a rematch of last season’s conference tournament final.
If the Bulls are to reach similar heights as their last campaign, they must improve defensively and continue to support their star talent on offense.