I know it's late for a write-up of the men's soccer season, which ended a week ago with a 1-0 overtime loss at Creighton in the national quarterfinals. But this was a difficult piece for me to write. Why? Because it's full of things I know Bulls fans don't want to hear. But they're true, by God, and need to be said.
This team was in 2011, and is for next season, very close to being a national title contender. It wasn't quite there against Creighton, but it was close. USF almost won that game -- twice, in fact, on two goals that were overturned by offsides calls. Yes, I know we don't do moral victories at USF. I know the football team's successes at Pittsburgh and West Virginia and Auburn and Florida State and Notre Dame have conditioned us to expect our team to pull out this kind of tough road game. But it didn't happen on this day, and USF was left short of its first ever trip to the College Cup.
But we're close. Incredibly close. 0-0 after 90 minutes close. (Then again, we're also 0-0 after 90 minutes close to losing in the Third Round to New Mexico. When you're down to the best 16 or 8 teams out of the 203 who field men's soccer, the differences get very small.)
The next thing I know Bulls fans don't want to hear about any of their teams is how well they played in a loss. But it's true. I live about two miles from Creighton's stadium and I've gone to many games there*. I've never seen Creighton get punched in the mouth like the Half Hoops did to them in the first half. USF brought a much more physical brand of play than the team, or its fans, were used to. Their crowd is usually pretty mellow, because things are usually going their way. Not on this day. They were ornery, demanding whistles for this and that, and upset that their team wasn't dictating play for the first time in a long, long time. They were not ready for the physicality of the Bulls, or the talent level of the Bulls. USF was ready for Creighton's aggressive play, and handled it superbly.
So what happened? It wasn't obvious at the time, and I don't think I even mentioned it in the game chat, but Creighton very subtlety imposed its will on the game in the second half. The things USF did well in the first half -- working the touchline, running with the ball, getting the ball to Dwyer in space, quickly breaking up Creighton's buildup, winning 50-50 balls in midfield -- they did a little less well in the second half. Creighton seemed to have the bulk of the possession, while USF's opportunities came in fits and starts. It looked like both teams had equal opportunity to blast away at the goal, but the statistics reveal that Creighton had 14 shots in the second half to USF's 3, and 9 corner kicks to 1. It's easy to overlook when they miss, but Creighton had a lot more near-misses than USF did. And they came closer and closer to finding the net as the game wore on.
As for overtime... it was, tough to admit, a logical culmination of the second half. Creighton had almost all the possession, with USF getting a couple of counterattacks in. A clearance failed to get past Creighton's Andrew Ribiero just above the arc. His long shot was deflected by Chris Blais** and right to the All-American Finlay, who needed only to tap it into the goal.
But it didn't have to end that way. USF could have scored at some point, on either cancelled goal or one of their other near-misses. Nobody would have even called it "against the run of play," as they say in games where one team dominates but loses. Creighton won, but they did not dominate. They were a little better overall, and got the decisive goal, but did not dominate when they did so often this season. And USF should be proud of that, and build on it.
After the jump, more observations from the game, and why I think the Half Hoops can be even better in 2012.
Other observations from this game:
- The NCAA was right to postpone the match from Saturday to Sunday. Both head coaches said after the game that it would have been a shame to decide this close, exciting game in the crummy conditions that existed on Saturday. It snowed heavily from about 11 AM to 3 PM on Saturday, then stopped. With no new snow coming, clearing the field became manageable. On Saturday, the new stuff was coming down just as fast as the plows were moving it off.
- About that 1 PM start time... I never got an answer as to why the game was initially moved to noon Central, and then moved again to 1 PM. But I suspect it might have been marketing-related. The soccer stadium is a short walk from the
QwestCenturyLink Center, where the annual Creighton-Nebraska hoops game was set to tip off at 4 PM. As you might guess, that's a big deal in these parts. I can't help but think the start time was moved in an attempt to attract people already coming downtown to make a full day of it. There certainly wasn't a weather-related reason for the move.
- The field was not a factor. Despite all the snow the day before, I can't think of one instance where a player slipped on the soccer-specific fieldturf. The field was a lush green, in sharp contrast to the piles of white stuff everywhere else. I overheard some Creighton people in the press box saying CU could afford to be a little rougher on the turf than usual since it was going to be replaced after the season anyway.
- The two recalled goals... they were probably offside. There was little protesting on either recalled goal. Dwyer's body language on the second one was more "that wasn't a foul?" than "that was offsides?" In the post-game interview, USF coach George Kiefer said "the refs had a better look than I did." Me, I had my focus away from the game to type a blog entry, so I can't personally attest. But that second one seemed awfully close. Just another testament to how close USF was to winning this.
- The officiating of the match was outstanding. You rarely hear about referees except when they screw up, so I want to commend the officials here. They let a lot of physical play go, and were lenient about handballs. But they were consistent all game long, and decisively pulled the yellow card when things got too rough. Once everybody realized what was and wasn't going to be allowed, there was very little grousing, even from a crowd that reacted angrily early on. The refs set a tone for the match, and let the players decide it. That's all you can ask for.
- Dom Dwyer needs a strike partner. For the first 20 minutes of the second half, Dwyer was up front by himself, and drawing three defenders. He's not that good. But when USF started to push a second player forward from midfield -- whether it was Roberto Alterio or Stiven Salinas or Lucas Baldin or Morten Benestad -- Dwyer became more effective. The mere presence of someone else to defend drew attention away from Dwyer. I shudder to think how good this team could be in 2012 if USF can offer a second attacker opposing defenses really have to deal with.
- Leston Paul needs to work on his shot selection. USF had three shots in the first half of this game, and two were long-distance blasts by Paul, In one instance, had numbers and an open Kevin Olali on the left, but chose to blast away from distance rather than use further buildup that was available. The second shot was less blatant, but similarly, waiting for support would have been the better option. Those at the UCF game may also remember it was Paul who botched the penalty kick against UCF, not only by missing it but by feinting during the run-up, which is not allowed. (Rule 14.2: "the player taking the penalty kick is permitted to use a stutter step or a hesitation move provided there is no stopping and there is continuous movement toward the ball.")
- Dwyer seemed to take the loss the hardest. After Creighton had scored the golden goal, there was the usual scene of the defeated players lying on the ground, exhausted, hands on faces, absorbing the enormity of what had happened. After a few minutes they get up and move on, but Dwyer didn't. He was out there the longest, shaking his head, and receiving commiseration from teammates and coaches. I'd love to think this means Dwyer (a junior) is definitely back next season lead USF to greater postseason heights.
- The Half Hoops return a lot of players, but who they lose is significant. USF's only seniors were goalkeeper Chris Blais, right back Aubrey Perry, midfielder Sebastian Thuriere, and occasional sub Santi Alexis. Blais, a graduate transfer from Michigan, played every minute between the pipes and came up with big saves all year long. Perry showed versatility and leadership from right back. Both Blais and Perry were invited to the MLS scouting combine. Thuriere was a starter, but lots of underclassman midfielders saw action for USF this season: Baldin, Benestad, Alterio, Paul, Olali, Ben Sweat, Kyle Nichols, and the hero of the UCF game, Wesley Charpie. A quality goalie is always a big loss; finding a replacement will be key. If they can do that, 2012 could be an even greater season than this one. And yes, this one was great.
* - If you live in Omaha, it is socially acceptable to support Creighton in soccer, Nebraska-Omaha in ice hockey, and of course the Huskers in football. Even if you didn't go to any of those schools.
** - The recap on NCAA.com says the shot was blocked by a USF defender. But in my recollection it was a save by Blais. I could be wrong, though.