The 19th-ranked USF Men's Soccer team fended off the #23 FIU Panthers 1-0 in a preseason exhibition Monday evening at a sultry Corbett Soccer Stadium.
George Kiefer gave fans a glimpse of the future with a starting XI that had only four experienced players: star keeper Spasoje Stefanovic, midfielder Graham Smith, defender Gabriel Pfeffer, and Pitt transfer Brandon Kolcynski (defender). Three Floridian freshmen made their USF debuts as well: defender Jonathan Rosales, midfielder Stephen Rudderham, and midfielder Ben Espinal.
For the first 10 minutes, FIU controlled the game. It was pretty clear USF was fielding a much younger, inexperienced team than Bulls fans are used to seeing. There were several poor giveaways in the midfield as well as a tendency to try to rush the ball up the field.
By halftime, FIU had outshot USF 4-3 in a very defensive game. For the Bulls, sophomore Gonzalo Rodriguez and junior Ricardo Gomez had established themselves as anchors in the midfield after splitting time in the first half. However, the lack of experience showed when Melvin Becket was subbed on in the 32nd minute. His presence instantly elevated USF to whip off a few quick chances. Stefanovic looked to be in midseason form on the little action he saw.
The second half saw a mostly veteran squad take the field. The notable exceptions were Rodriguez and Gomez, who shared the midfield together, and Jonathan Rosales, who would be the only player to go all 90 minutes. The addition of players like Prosper Figbe (defender), Lindo Mfeka (midfielder) and the electric Nazeem Bartman (striker) elevated the play of the three young players.
With Becket and Marcus Epps on the wings, the focus of the game quickly changed from the center of the pitch to the sidelines as USF took command over FIU. The game remained defensive, but the Golden Panthers were the ones on their heels to begin the second half.
The breakthrough occurred in the 60th minute. Marcus Epps beat two defenders in the box and found a wide open Mfeka on the six, who slotted the ball near-side for the only goal of the game.
Backup keeper Christian Knight came in immediately following the goal. Stefanovic tallied three saves in his 60 minutes of play. Knight would make two more in the final 30 to preserve the clean sheet, including recovering a ball he originally dropped after getting knocked off balance in the air.
FIU made several pushes in the last 10 minutes as USF fell back into a defensive shell. However, the veteran defense stepped up to repel each attack. The frustration for the Panthers mounted early, resulting in several hard fouls on Mfeka and one very scary moment for Figbe when a late sliding challenge collided with his ankle. Referee Hassan Belmnahia, however, refused to go to the book on any of the card-worthy fouls, despite the risk of injury from careless challenges.
FIU outshot USF 7-5, and won two corners to USF's one. Coach Kiefer was unavailable for comment after the game.
Despite his strong showing, it was clear that the freshman Rosales didn't possess the experience shared along the rest of the back line. However, his talent and work rate are excellent. Without a clear alternate to left back, I wouldn't be surprised to see him more in the future. Rodriguez and Gomez also meshed extremely well with each other and the veteran squad in the second half. Look for both players to continue to get minutes through the season as well, as USF lost several players in the midfield area during the off season.
Fans who follow the men's soccer team will be sorry to hear that standouts Gabriel Carlsson, Kendan Anderson and Eduardo Maceira do not appear on the 2016 roster. Despite the unexpected attrition, USF soccer appears to be in strong position to make another run for the conference title and NCAA tournament.