Ricky Dagand | Staff Writer
The FIU soccer stadium was packed for the last game of the regular season on Wednesday, Oct. 2. All eyes were on the FIU men’s soccer team as they took on state rivals, the FAU Owls, in a conference-clinching match.
If FIU wins, they won the AAC Regular Season Champions.
The stakes were high for both teams. FIU looked for their second championship in a row while FAU was clawing away at the chance to qualify for the postseason. A draw would’ve been enough for the Owls to continue to the next round of play.
FIU pressured the FAU defense and kept them on their heels for most of the first half, outshooting the Owls 6-3.
The first half ended with an uneventful 0-0.
It was more of the same in the second half. The Panthers controlled the pace of the match, pushing forward every time they had the ball. The Owls were reluctant to overcommit on offense and, with a spot at the AAC playoffs hanging in the balance, decided staying back to defend was their best option.
With ten minutes to go in the game, things were looking bleak for FIU. They’d come short on nearly all their shot attempts on goal, and time was winding down.
In the 86th minute, FIU found themselves at the edge of the FAU box. Julian Hodek sent a floating pass inside the box and found a flying Andrew Bennett, who headed the ball straight into the back of the net.
“This was one of our more difficult games all year and super proud of the boys and over the moon for how they didn’t panic, and they never quit,” head coach Kyle Russell said postgame about his team’s resilience. “That’s FIU. You never quit.”
Bennett’s first goal of the season came at the most crucial time for the Panthers.
“Andrew Bennett was called upon tonight and in other games he hasn’t been called upon,” Russell said. “He’s been excellent in terms of keeping his head, keeping fit, and being ready when called upon.”
The final whistle blew, and the Panthers were the Atlantic Athletic Conference champions.
“Really proud of the boys, this is the American Athletic Conference, it is top three in the country, this is no easy feat,” Russell said postgame. “As you saw tonight, it came down to the last night of games to see who finishes first, second, third and fourth.”
This is FIU’s second consecutive regular season title under Russell after winning the Conference-USA title in 2021.
“In a difficult choppy game like tonight’s, where FAU did an awesome job not allowing us to get into a rhythm, with a lot of fouling in their half, the guys still found a way to win,” Russell said.
With the win, FIU has home-field advantage for their next game on Thursday, Oct. 10, where they will face the winner between Tulsa and Memphis.
“We tell our guys here at FIU we recruit champions and we train like champions,” Russell said about hosting the AAC tournament and a possible title. “A championship game doesn’t scare us.”