Liam Rooney / Staff Writer
In the first full regular season since COVID-19 turned the collegiate athletics world on its head, the FIU Men’s Soccer team flashed potential to be one of the nations premier soccer programs and won its first C-USA regular season title since 2017.
After finishing 4-4-1 in the makeshift regular season in the spring of 2021, the Panthers record jumped to 12-4-2, and their conference record of 7-0-1 earned the squad the C-USA regular season championship. Consistently ranked among the nations best, FIU spent ten weeks ranked in the top 25, climbing as high as 12th.
Head coach Kyle Russell implemented a high pressing quick tempo playstyle that produced 2.3 goals per game, the 10th best goals per game in the nation, and 42 goals scored throughout the season, FIU’s second highest output in the last five years only behind 2017’s 50 goals.
“Yeah, we want to do the work in the opponent’s half of the field rather than doing the work deeper closer to our goal,” Russell said in an interview with PantherNOW. “It’s a really hard way to play as you can imagine and you have to coach it well and have the players that can do it and buy into it and we do we have that.”
One of the things Russell stressed was the importance of winning at home and connecting with the fans, and this season the Panthers were perfect at home in the regular season, winning every game played in Miami.
“It was cool to see the support of the student body, see alumni that we haven’t seen for a while, you know seeing the community and administration come out is really, really exciting,” Russell said. “The guys take pride in this place, we honor the opportunity to play at home because this is our city.”
Russell earned Conference USA coach of the year for his work coaching the team. Russell said that even though the award was given to him, the award is recognition for the entire coaching staff and the work they did all year.
Defensively the Panthers allowed just over a goal a game and conceded a total of 21 goals in the 18 games played. FIU held its opponents scoreless on seven occasions and conceded more than one goal in a game only three times.
In the C-USA tournament the Panthers dropped to the eventual tournament winning Kentucky Wildcats in the semi-finals 3-0. FIU reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, but the Panthers fell short against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, crushing the dream of a national title.
“The whole staff is very excited, as well as the team,” Russell said. “But look, at the end of the day, in my profession, you’re never happy with how the season ends. Unless you win a national championship.”
The Season Kicks Off
After three wins in the preseason, the Panthers began the regular season with four wins and a tie in their first five games, scoring 11 and only letting in three goals. Not shying from a challenge, FIU played two ranked opponents in the five game stretch, beating 13th UCF 4-0 in Orlando, and claiming a 2-0 victory against 12th VCU at home.
The tie came against the University of North Florida. An early Osprey goal was canceled out after defender Kareem Riley slotted home a penalty right before the end of the first half. The game remained deadlocked at one until the final whistle.
Following the red hot start to the season, FIU took their first loss of the year against Bowling Green, falling 2-0 to the Falcons. The Panthers rebounded from the Bowling Green defeat with a dominant 6-0 shutout of Jacksonville in the final game before the C-USA season started.
Entering conference play, FIU held a 5-1-1 record and were ranked as the 23rd best team in the country.
Panthers Control C-USA Play
FIU set the tone for what was to come in conference play in their 2-1 victory over the UAB Blazers. Controlling the majority of the game, the Panthers collected a 2-1 win in Alabama. Following the match with the Blazers history was made.
The Panthers hosted the Charlotte 49ers in the second conference matchup. From start to finish FIU controlled the flow of the game and smashed four goals past the 49ers to register the squads first ever win against Charlotte.
Following the first victory against the 49ers, FIU tied the Kentucky Wildcats. The tie against the Wildcats was followed by five straight conference victories for the Panthers including wins against Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, FAU, and the defending National Champion Marshall Thundering Herd.
Against Coastal Carolina, the Panthers found themselves down at halftime, but in the second half FIU produced a magical minute, scoring 2 goals in that time to down the Chanticleers and win the first ever match between the two teams.
After edging out Old Dominion 3-2, FIU played their last non-conference game of the season, a matchup with the Clemson Tigers. In one of the biggest tests of the season, the Panthers experienced their worst defeat since 2012 getting shut out 4-0 by the Tigers. Unable to capitalize on first half opportunities, FIU dropped it’s second game and was held scoreless for the first time all year.
Rebounding from the 4-0 defeat with a 4-0 victory against FAU boosted the Panthers to the top spot in C-USA with a title match against Marshall on the horizon. FIU scored three in the first half and added a fourth in the second half to beat the Owls for the eighth straight year. Following FAU was the biggest game in recent FIU athletics history, a match with #1 Marshall.
Against Marshall, FIU had the chance to go unbeaten in conference play and win the first regular season title since 2017. The Herd struck first with an early penalty, but the Panthers responded in force, scoring four unanswered goals to upset the nations top team and win the conference regular season as unbeaten champions.
Following the dominant regular season, expectations were high for the Panthers heading into the postseason. Securing a first round bye in the C-USA tournament, FIU had its chance to collect two conference titles in front of them.
The Postseason Woes
Because of the regular season title, FIU received a first round bye in the C-USA tournament and played the Kentucky Wildcats after they beat Coastal Carolina in the first round. The first meeting of the two ended in a tie, but in tournament play Kentucky turned up the pressure.
The Panthers and the Wildcats battled it out for almost an hour before the opening goal. Kentucky scored in the 53rd minute and after a red card to FIU, they added on two more goals in the 73rd and 75th minute to end the Panthers C-USA tournament run.
Following the disappointing end to the conference tournament, FIU had a chance to bounce back in the NCAA tournament. Receiving a first round bye one again, the Panthers hosted Wake Forest for the tournament match.
Wake Forest took the lead right before the half hour mark and FIU responded in the 41st minute, but after a mistake on the edge of the box, the Demon Deacons punished FIU and scored their second to take a 2-1 lead into halftime.
In the second half the Panthers tied the game once more, but 45 seconds later Wake Forest again regained the lead and would remain in the lead until the end, knocking the Panthers out of the tournament in the second round, and in Russell’s eye’s providing learning experience for the squad.
“I’m proud of the way our team played, even though things weren’t going their way,” said Russell. “It’s valuable experience.”
The Recruits Make a Big Impact
During the shortened off-season from the end of the spring season to the beginning of the fall season, the Pantheres added 15 new recruits to the squad. With the experience that many of the recruits Russell brought in had, the expectations were high for the new boys.
Three recruits who immediately became important figures in the squad were defender Edgar Aguilar, midfielder Matteo Gasperoni and forward Bernardo Dos Santos. All three played in 17 of the 18 games this season, Gasperoni started in 16 and Dos Santos in 15. Aguilar started in every game he played.
“It’s exciting to coach Matteo Gasperoni, who this is his first time playing college soccer, and he’s and he’s won a ton of awards, ” Russell said. “It’s really fun coaching Bernardo Dos Santos, who’s Freshman of the Year and all region team as a freshman, I mean that there’s not many guys in the country that have that to their name as a freshman.”
Among the rest of the recruits, players like midfielders Matthias Lavenant, Julian Hodek, Yushi Nagao, defenders Carlos Sheckerman, Philip Hildebrandt, and Noriyuki Ito all played significant roles this season and will certainly make an impact throughout the remainder of their careers at FIU.
A number of players made their impact on the season, with seven Panthers being selected to the C-USA all conference teams, and four players receiving all-region honors for their play this season.
Forward Stephen Afrifa was FIU’s top scorer with eight goals and earned himself all-region first team and all conference first team recognition. Afrifa was integral to the high scoring offense and his combination of pace and crafty play making helped the Panthers to victory in a number of games.
Dos Santos received all-region second team alongside his all conference first team selection, C-USA freshman of the year selection, and all-conference freshman team appearance. Dos Santos bagged seven goals and utilized his silky step overs that he used to isolate defenders before scoring or setting a teammate up.
In his final season, Defender Kareem Riley earned all-region second team alongside Dos Santos and also was given all-conference first team honors. Riley was the only Panther to start every game and the captain anchored the defense. Riley contributed offensively with five goals, the third highest tally on the team. Russell spoke about losing the team captain for next season.
“He’s just a fantastic human being, and he was a great leader for us,” Russell said. “He almost felt like a player coach, like an extension of our staff. So we have big shoes to fill.”
Rounding out the all-region selections is Gasperoni, who earned all-region third team and all-conference first team. Appearing in 17 games for the Panthers, Gasperoni was ever present in the midfield and helped FIU control the tempo of games. Gasperoni contributed two goals and an assist.
Panthers defender David Garcia earned a spot on the all-conference second team, the third year in a row Garcia has been honored on an all-conference team. Primarily slotted next to Riley at the back, Garcia helped the stout FIU defense keep opponents out of the net and also bagged three goals.
Receiving all-conference third team votes, goalkeeper Tyler Hogan posted four shutouts and came up with a number of crucial saves for the Panthers. Appearing alongside Hogan on the third team was Hodek, the freshman commanded the midfield and registered a team high eight assists also scoring one goal.
The Look Ahead to Next Season
Out of the 11 who started the match against Wake Forest, only Riley and midfielder Mauro Bravo will not be returning next season. Other departures include midfielder Mattis Barraza, goalkeeper Grant Makala, midfielder Talla Faye, and forward Steven Riad.
With a youthful squad, Russell believes that this is only the beginning for his FIU team. With the recruiting process underway, the Panthers will look to add talent to the squad to help push them towards more titles
“We don’t recruit guys for the beach and the palm trees, we recruit guys with the same ambitions as us,” said Russell. “The guys are coming here to fight for us and to fight to win a national championship and a conference championship as well. So that’s the type of player we have in our program.”
The expectation for next season has been set by Russell. Winning the C-USA regular season once again is expected, but he wants his team to take home the C-USA tournament title and the NCAA title.
“The expectation is to do what we just did plus more,” said Russell. “My ambition is always high, I want to win three trophies, regular season, conference tournament and national championship.”