Liam Rooney / Staff Writer
Faced with cancelations, schedule reworks, and being pushed back an entire semester due to COVID-19, it felt like a miracle that the 2021 FIU Men’s soccer season was able to kick off.
COVID has challenged the world and has impacted college sports in an unprecedented way. Typically the men’s soccer season would take place during the fall semester of an academic year, however due to the pandemic this season was pushed back to the spring semester, meaning 2020 saw no soccer for the Panthers.
In a makeshift season the Panthers gave a taste of what’s to come under first year head coach Kyle Russell, who replaced Kevin Nylen in February 2020. Russel joined the Panthers after twelve seasons on the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers coaching staff, winning a total of twelve championships.
In an interview with PantherNOW, Russell described the bizarre circumstances of the 2021 men’s soccer season as “To be honest with you, I’m just happy we were able to have a season.”
Having to adapt to an ever changing situation this season was a challenge for the Panthers. They played nine games this season, half the number of matches in which they’d normally play, finishing with an 4-4-1 overall record.
In conference play, FIU finished with a 3-3-1 record, good for a third place spot out of the eight teams in Conference USA. Earning national recognition, FIU ranked as high as twenty second in the nation this year.
Scoring 17 goals in nine games, FIU ranked as the fourth highest scoring team in the conference, and they held the highest average goals per game at 1.89. Similarly, the Panthers ranked fourth in the conference with 16 assists in nine games and topped the assists per game charts with 1.78 per contest.
Leading the conference and ranking seventh in the nation in saves per game at 5.33 a match, the Panthers kept three clean sheets this year. Ranking as the fifth best team in the conference in goals allowed at one per game, defensively FIU found success.
Despite high conference rankings the Panthers were unable to consistently sit in the win column this year. Only winning back to back games once this season, consistency will need to improve for future success.
Russell intends on succeeding with FIU, aiming for conference and national titles in the future. Due to COVID-19 however there was no C-USA tournament this season, and the Panthers did not qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Pre-Season And The Regular Season Get Underway
After months of delay, the FIU men’s soccer team began their campaign with two exhibition matches in January against both the Central Florida Knights and the South Florida Bulls.
Both matches ended in 2-0 victories for the Panthers. On January 23rd, FIU bested the Knights and defeated the Bulls on January 30th. These matches served to boost fitness and get players back on the pitch, and the victories were an added bonus.
After completion of the two exhibition matches, FIU shifted their focus to the regular season, which was scheduled to begin on February 7th against the Jacksonville Dolphins. The matchup with the Dolphins was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19 protocols within the Jacksonville program.
Due to the cancellation, FIU got the ball rolling for the regular season with a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles on February 17th. Goals from forward Rasumus Tobinksi, defender David Garcia, and midfielder Alessandro Campoy clinched victory for the Panthers in game one of the year.
FIU followed up their match with FGCU with a visit from the North Florida Ospreys, losing 1-0 on February 21st. This was the first loss against the Ospreys since the 4-3 defeat in the 2016 season.
The Panthers responded to the UNF loss with a 5-0 exhibition win against the Fort Lauderdale Eagles on March 1st. Goals for midfielders Maruo Bravo and Matias Barraza came just 33 seconds apart. Three more goals were added with Garica netting one and Campoy grabbing two. This was the final match before FIU began conference play.
Conference USA Play Kicks Off
FIU finds itself in Conference USA where the level of competition is high. Including the Panthers, four C-USA teams were ranked in the top 25 during the 2021 season, and two members made appearances in the NCAA tournament. Ultimately, the Marshall Thundering Herd won the tournament.
“In my opinion Conference USA is a top five conference in the country, when you look at the NCAA tournament and the top 25 rankings,” said coach Russell.
Opening conference play with a matchup against the Florida Atlantic Owls on March 6th, FIU shut them out 2-0, with goals coming from Campoy and Bravo. Panther goalkeeper Johan Penaranda was a wall between the sticks, saving six shots, including a penalty to help solidify the win.
Following the FAU win was a road test for the Panthers.They travelled to Huntington, West Virginia on March 13th, to take on Marshall. The matchup was a tense affair, going all the way into overtime after regulation ended scoreless.
Penaranda kept Marshall from breaking through with a season high 14 saves. The Herd would end Penaranda’s blockade however and score the winner at the start of overtime, handing FIU their second loss of the season.
It wouldn’t take long for the Panthers to get back in the win column, defeating the Alabama Birmingham Blazers 4-0 on March 20th. This was the second shutout in conference play and FIU’s second highest scoring game of the season.
A first half flurry saw FIU net three goals. Midfielder Errol Spence scored 90 seconds after Campoy opened the scoring. Campoy added a second goal right before half time. In the second half Tobinski sealed the victory with his goal.
Scheduled to take on the Charlotte 49ers on March 27th, the Panthers matchup was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns in the 49ers program. The game was rescheduled for April 14th, meaning the next game for FIU was a showdown with the eighteenth ranked Kentucky Wildcats on April 3rd.
The Kentucky matchup was a double overtime thriller that resulted in the only tie of the season for the Panthers. Barraza opened the scoring in the first half, however an early second half goal by the Wildcats deadlocked the game at one. At the end of regulation the score was 1-1, with the damage by UK limited due to Penaranda making nine saves.
In the first overtime period neither team were able to find the golden goal, setting the game up for a second overtime. Despite FIU dominating the overtime periods, Kentucky nearly had the last laugh hitting the post in the last second of the game. With both teams failing to grab the winner, the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
Following the deadlock with the Wildcats, FIU hosted the South Carolina Gamecocks on April 10th. Goals from Garcia and midfielder Stephen Afrifa weren’t enough for the Panthers as they were unable to overcome three first half goals from the Gamecocks, losing 3-2.
After the original matchup with Charlotte was postponed, the game would be played on April 14th. A tight affair with the 49ers resulted in a 1-0 loss for the Panthers. Unable to break through Charlotte’s defense, FIU lost back to back games for the first time since the end of the 2019 season.
In the final matchup of the season FIU traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to take on the Old Dominion Monarchs. It was the highest scoring display of the season for the Panthers as they defeated the Monarchs 5-0. The goals for FIU came from five different players with defender Adam Hassan, midfielder Talla Faye, defender Kareem Riley, Barraza, and Afrifa all scoring.
The Panthers conference season goes down as an average showing. Finishing behind only Marshall and Charlotte, FIU was unable to better their third place finish from the 2019 season. With ambitions high for next year, improvements need to be made.
The Key Figures
The Panthers received contributions from numerous players throughout the year, with a well balanced team. From goalkeepers to forwards FIU had influential play from players who would capture the attention of the rest of the conference, with a selection of Panthers making all conference teams.
Campoy received the highest honor, put on the all conference first team, with Penaranda and Riley on the all conference second team. Bravo and Garcia received all conference third team honors and freshman defender Johannes Vendin was awarded all conference freshman team honors.
Receiving the highest honor of all the awarded Panthers, Campoy was a creative force for FIU in the middle of the pitch. Appearing in eight games this season, Campoy tallied a team high four goals, the fifth highest scorer in C-USA, and contributed two assists. Averaging a goal every other game, Campoy’s .50 average for goals per game ranked him third in C-USA.
Six goal contributions in eight games is a high level of production, but Campoy’s impact didn’t always show up on the stat sheet. Campoy often linked play from the defense to attack, helping create numerous goal scoring opportunities for FIU. This is Campoy’s second all conference first team appearance, his first being in 2019.
Penaranda was one of two Panthers selected to the all conference second team. Acting as the last line of defense for FIU, Penaranda was ranked fifth in the nation and best in Conference USA with his 5.43 saves per game and his .864 save percentage. Penaranda was not only one of the best keepers in the conference, but in the entire nation.
Russell had high praise for his shot stopper, calling Penaranda “probably the best goalkeeper I’ve ever coached.” This was Penaranda’s first year at FIU after transferring from the Pittsburgh Panthers, so this is his first all conference team selection in C-USA.
The second FIU player to gain second team honors was defender Kareem Riley. Transitioning from midfield to center back this season, Riley started every game for the Panthers. Riley captained the team in some matches and helped lead the defense to three shutouts this year. His contributions weren’t limited to just defense, as Riley scored once this season.
Another transfer making his presence felt in a new conference was Mauro Bravo, as he earned all conference third team honors. Scoring one goal and assisting three this year, Bravo was an important piece to the FIU attack. Bravo’s best performance of the season came in the 2-0 win against FAU as he contributed to both goals, scoring one and assisting the other.
David Garcia earned his second all conference third team appearance in a row for the Panthers. A defender who appeared in eight games and started in seven of them, Garcia was a key part of the backline for FIU and their defensive success. Garcia also found success offensively, scoring two goals this season.
Freshman defender Johannes Vedin was the final player to receive conference honors as he made the all conference freshman team. Vedin appeared in seven games for the Panthers and he started each one. Helping solidify the FIU defense, Vedin will be one to keep an eye on going forward.
Matias Barraza didn’t receive conference honors, however he was one of FIU’s top performers this year contributing two goals and a conference high five assists. Barraza led C-USA in assists per game with his average of .56 a game. Starting in all but one of his nine appearances, Barraza was a presence for the Panthers offensively.
What’s Next For The Panthers
After what can be considered as an average season, FIU looks to the recruiting process and a full offseason to prepare them for Fall of 2021. Admittedly, the circumstances of the spring season played a part in the outcome, however there is room for improvement.
Russel used the word “Reloaded” to describe how he feels the men’s soccer team will be when it comes to the fall season. With numerous new recruits coming into the Panther program, the future of the team is bright.
The full recruiting class has yet to be released, but as it stands FIU has announced the signing of 8 new players for the next season. Many of these players come from international backgrounds and professional academies. Their collective experience these players have will bolster the FIU roster.
With new recruits and returning faces, the expectations are high for the Panthers in the fall, as coach Russell has set the bar for next season by stating that he expects the Panthers to be competing in the NCAA tournament.
Only the second time in his coaching career that he hasn’t been participating in the NCAA tournament, Russell aims to bring the Panthers back for the first time since the 2017 season.
A conference title is also on the mind of the FIU’s men’s soccer team, with the hopes that next season FIU will win its first C-USA title since 2015, and only the second in school history. With a fresh squad and high expectations, the Fall 2021 season for the Panthers will be the time to deliver on the expectations set.