Grit and growing pains: reviewing the 2023 men’s soccer campaign

The FIU men's soccer team preparing before a game. Photo courtesy of Carla Mendez | PantherNOW.

Carla Mendez | Assistant Sports Director 

Through a year of both growing pains and celebratory moments, the FIU men’s soccer team concluded their season with a 2-1 loss in the second round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Championship tournament.

As the Panthers approached the 2023 campaign, they did so on the heels of a triumphant season in 2022. That season, they finished with a 14-5-1 record and took home multiple conference titles.

Proving themselves in their first season as members of the American Athletic Conference, they took home both regular season and conference championships.

Entering the 2023 season, it marked head coach Kyle Russell’s fourth season at the helm of the team. Recruiting multiple key contributors in the offseason, he brought in junior forward Eduardo Mustre, junior defender Owen Travis, and junior midfielder Diego Castillo.

Through both his coaching and recruitment efforts, it resulted in a 10-5-4 record for their 2023 season. While they were unable to secure as many wins as the previous season, they made the NCAA tournament.

A Strong Start: 

The FIU men’s soccer team receiving end-of-game critiques from head coach Kyle Russell. Photo courtesy of Carla Mendez | PantherNOW.

FIU began their season focused and prepared to defend their conference title, as they won their first two games. Demonstrating competitive consistency early into the season, they were ranked No. 7 in the NCAA on August 30, 2023. 

However, a turning point occurred against the Central Arkansas Sugar Bears on Sep. 1, where the team struggled to convert on any of their scoring opportunities. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and the Panthers were outshot by a margin of 16 points (21-5). 

This match unveiled an early indication of a recurring pattern that remained throughout the season- their struggle to capitalize on opportunities and score goals. 

Beginning against Central Arkansas, they went 0-2-2 over a four-game span and were held scoreless in two games. While they were unable to find a single win over four games, the team was forced to adapt to their new position and found their stride.

Over their next nine games, FIU went 7-1-1 and propelled themselves to a 9-3-3 season record. Their offensive firepower allowed them to accumulate 18-goals over that span, with two games where they scored at least five points.

Late Season Struggles:

Following a strong stretch of games, their momentum came to a halt over their final six games of the season. Through their final three games of the regular season, the Panthers went 1-1-1 and finished with a 10-5-4 record.

While they were able to score at their usual rate, with five goals over a three-game span, they struggled to keep up with their opponent’s scoring.

Due to their 5-1-2 conference record, FIU earned a spot in the AAC Championship tournament and took on the FAU Owls on Nov. 5.  

This match saw the Panthers dominate possession in the first half as Mustre led the team with three shots. Tailing into the second half the Panthers were unable to keep their momentum and guard up, falling to FAU in the last 45-seconds of the match. 

They took a 1-0 defeat to the Owls and got eliminated in the first round of the tournament. However, the Panthers’ season still wasn’t over, as they reached the NCAA tournament for their third consecutive season.

In the first round of the tournament, they secured a 1-0 shutout victory over the Mercer  Bears and managed to compensate for their lack of scoring. Demonstrating defensive dominance, FIU recorded their first clean sheet in tournament play since Nov. 16, 2017.

Moving onto the second round, the Panthers played their final game of the season against the Virginia Cavaliers on Nov. 19. Their struggle to consistently score followed them into that game and led them into taking a 2-1 loss.

Senior forward Leo Alfonso provided the Cavaliers with their first score at the 36-minute markers and gave his team the lead. However, their initial lead was short lived, as sophomore midfielder Joao Domingues scored three minutes later and tied the match at 1-1.

Competing through regulation, the result of the game was decided in overtime. Alfonso delivered a bicycle kick that resulted in a goal and gave Virginia a 2-1 lead.

Falling 2-1 in overtime, FIU’s season came to a close in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Despite the end result, they added another winning season into the school’s history books.

Star Players: 

In just his first season with the team, Mustre emerged as one of the Panther’s leading contributors. He led the team with 11-goals on the season and started in all 19-games this season.

Also in his inaugural season donning the blue and gold, Travis showcased his talents after transferring from UAB where he was a three year starter. He played in all 19-matches and led the team in minutes played with 1,587.

His dedication to both academics and athletics are underscored by his three-time recognition as an honor-roll member throughout the season. Travis was also selected to the All-Conference Second Team after his performance in the 2023 season. 

Graduate student goalkeeper Tyler Hogan started in 15-matches and logged 34-saves with a 0.91 goals against average. Anchoring the defense, he was named AAC goalkeeper of the week three times throughout the season. 

Junior forward Bernardo Dos Santos Monteiro made the AAC All-Conference team for the second consecutive season after being a key pawn on the attacking line. He played in 17-matches and accumulated the second highest number of goals on the team, with six in the 2023 season. 

While their season came to a halting stop in the playoffs, FIU has shown the ability to be a highly competitive team. Finding consistency as a team and allowing players to grow together can propel them back to their championship status.

Heading into the 2024 season, the FIU men’s soccer team looks to retain their major contributors and have a return to their championship form.

Follow Carla Mendez on X: @carladfmendez

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