Ricky Dagand | Staff Writer
The Panthers faced the USF Bulls in the final of the American Championship Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 13. FIU had an opportunity to win their second trophy in the AAC, after winning the regular season championship.
“Today could have overwhelmed a lot of teams,” said coach Kyle Russell after the FIU men’s soccer team played a dominant brand of soccer and solidified themselves as the sole champions of the American Athletic Conference.
At the start of the match, FIU looked for an early goal as they pushed players forward, however, USF caught on quickly and counterattacked whenever they’d cause a defensive turnover.
The Panthers made tactical changes to create more chances on the wings. In the 24th minute, Bernardo Dos Santos Monteiro ran down the left wing and made his way inside the box. Dos Santos shoots, and his shot bounced off a defender and nestled in the back of the net.
Captain David Garcia hadn’t gotten a goal all season, but in the 41st minute, he’d finally get it. Joao Domingues sent the first corner kick right on Garcia’s head, but the Bull’s goalie saved it for another corner kick.
Domingues sent the ball in again, only this time to the back post, where Carlos Scheckermann headed it back in the box where Garcia waited to head it in for the Panther’s second goal of the game.
FIU held onto their two-goal lead and ended the game as the AAC regular season and tournament champions.
When asked about his big goal, Garcia noted that he was aware of his drought.
“I feel like I’ve been unlucky all season. I had chances, probably more than last year, that didn’t want to go in,” Garcia said. “But this morning, I told Carlos (Schekermann) if the ball comes to you, put it back in. I’ll be right there, and it just happened.”
Garcia was awarded The American Men’s Soccer Most Outstanding Defensive Player and believed in this year’s team’s success when asked about his tenure.
“I came here in 2019; it feels like a long time ago. But these last two seasons have been pretty special,” Garcia said. “Last year, we won the regular season against the defending national champion, Marshal; that was great.”
“But we knew that this season, we had even a better team, better mentality. I think we deserved to win the regular season. I feel that we deserved to win this tournament,” Garcia said.
Coach Russell was confident that his team was going to win trophies.
“We preached it. Some people are afraid to talk about winning trophies. We’ve been talking about this since January,” Russell said. “They believed in what we’d been talking about for months, and they’re able to see fruit from that work for that labor. I’m so proud.”
“We’ve recruited competitors. This is what we came here for. We came here for trophies; we didn’t come here to play possession and just hope possession wins the game.”
When asked about the upcoming NCAA tournament, Russell and Dos Santos Monteiro said the team is going to focus on one game at a time.
“We accomplished two of our main objectives of the season, and now we’re going for the third,” Dos Santos Monteiro said. “Game by game, we can’t start thinking about the final if we haven’t won the first game.”
FIU awaits the winner of the first round matchup between New Hampshire and Seton Hall in the NCAA tournament. The Panthers have history with New Hampshire, and would face Seton Hall for the first time this season.
The Panthers will host the winner of the first round matchup on Sunday, Nov. 20.