Liam Rooney | Sports Director
With one match remaining in the 2022 FIU men’s soccer season, the Panthers could claim a first American Athletic Conference title and their second straight conference championship after last year’s Conference USA title if they win against FAU on Wednesday Nov. 2.
Following a 3-2 victory against FGCU on Oct. 25, the Panthers traveled to No. 22 Charlotte, beating the 49ers 3-2 in a conference thriller. The victory placed FIU atop the AAC standings with a 10-4-1 overall record, and 5-2-1 AAC record, tied with Tulsa, who the Panthers have the advantage over after their 3-0 victory earlier in the season.
FIU got here after two gritty victories in four days. Matching up with the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast, Stephen Afrifa got the game’s first goal, linking up with Yushi Nagao for some slick combination play to open the Eagles up. The first half ended with FIU in control and up by one on the scoreboard.
In the second half, the Panthers traded blows with the Eagles like a boxing match. In the 52nd minute FGCU scored the equalizer with their first shot of the game, and FIU countered with a goal of their own almost 20 minutes later. Afrifa turned provider this time, setting up Bernardo Dos Santos Monteiro for the go-ahead goal.
As the minutes ticked by, it seemed like FIU was cruising to victory, but in the 80th minute FGCU equalized once more, scoring on their second shot of the game.
It only took 77 seconds for the Panthers’ response.
Following a pass into the box from Dos Santos, midfielder Julian Gastaldy was fouled and drew a penalty for the Panthers. Dos Santos stepped up to the spot and buried the penalty in the bottom left corner, sending the crowd into a frenzy and giving FIU the game-winning goal.
“Every game for us matters. That’s not the truth for every team,” Panthers head coach Kyle Russell said about the importance of winning. “For us, we want an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, and we want to win our conference.”
The bar was set by Russell following the game with FGCU, standing in their way next was Charlotte.
“I’m happy that we took this game seriously , but we need to keep stacking wins,” Russell said. “We’ve got to get to ten at Charlotte, that’s the goal.”
That goal was met, but it took a comeback from the Panthers to get that tenth win of the season. Charlotte took the lead a half-hour into the match, maintaining their goal advantage into the halftime break. In the second half the game flipped on its head.
Just under 10 minutes into the second half, Rasmus Tobinski headed home his first goal of the season to tie the game, giving FIU momentum. In the 71st minute, Carlos Scheckermann, who was making his return from injury, put the Panthers ahead with a header from a corner.
A staple of the Kyle Russell era at FIU has been his team’s ability to score goals in quick succession, and 65 seconds later that was on display as Fumiya Shiraishi fired home his fourth goal of the season and gave FIU a two-goal cushion. Despite an attempted comeback by the 49ers, the Panthers held on for the 3-2 victory.
As the final game of the season rapidly approaches, the Panthers again find themselves in the position to win a title, with this being their first year in the AAC.
With the importance of this game clear, the Panthers will need their captains David Garcia, Julian Hodek, and Edgar Aguliar need to put in good performances for a young squad looking for a title.
“Their communication is important, and the tricky part with those three is if they have bad games, our team has bad games,” Russell said. “So that speaks to how important they are to our team, if they have good games, we usually win.”
Facing FAU at FIU Soccer Stadium, the Panthers kick-off their rivalry match with the Owls at 7 p.m. on Wednesday Nov. 2.
For FIU it’s simple: win against the Owls and they are conference champions.