First of all, check the picture to the right. If that's not the best uniform any USF team has ever worn, I'll eat my old green and gold basketball shorts with the "Elsie the Cow" logo on the side. Major props to Coach Kiefer and Under Armour for totally crushing it with the kit. The jerseys, intentionally or not, evoke the Catholic side of the Old Firm and Celtic, so we shall be calling this team the "Half Hoops" all season long. No, the stripes don't go all the way around the back like Henrik Larsson's did at Paradise, but it's close enough. Bulls Outfitter, The Bookstore, SOMEONE please get these in stock so I can own one ASAP. And the socks too, because they simply rule.
The Bulls enter 2010 following four NCAA trips in the last five years, including a conference tournament championship and Elite Eight run in 2008, and it looks like this year's side is heading back for NCAA play as well. Ranked 13th and 16th in the two major polls, USF was only picked to finish 3rd in the Big East Red Division in the preseason poll. That should tell you how good the conference is. Much like basketball, there are simply no nights off in this league.
Since the signing of George Kiefer in 2002, men's soccer has been USF's most successful sport, and the Bulls enter the season with the longest home unbeaten streak in America at 30 matches. Like most teams that have had success over an extended period, USF has a definite style of play that translates from year to year. The program is consistently successful enough where Kiefer can recruit players that fit his system instead of having to tailor his tactics to his personnel. Some might call the Bulls style defensive and dull, and no one will confuse us for the Selecao, but you simply can't argue with the results. They win, draw great and enthusiastic crowds, and are consistently competitive every year. But their first mission every night out is to defend, and that requires you to have creative players up top that are capable of scoring to put up victories. If you appreciate the nuance of team defense, then the Bulls are your side. Under Kiefer, the Bulls back line and keeper have consistently turned potential chances away with composure and quality for the latter half of this decade. There is no reason to think that won't continue.
Some very early thoughts on this year's team after one exhibition match after the jump.
The Bulls came out against Jacksonville in what looked like a 4-4-1-1. Up top junior Bernardo Anor was slotted in just behind sophomore striker Hasani Sinclair, who had the best two chances of the first half. The one that would have made the highlight reel was a sublime dribbling run down the right side, punctuated by a rocket just outside the area that beat the keeper cold, but ricocheted back into play off the cross bar with half a minute left in the opening period. Sinclair looks to be the replacement for Zak Boggs, who headed off to the New England Revolution before he saves the world in some capacity (he almost got a Rhodes Scholarship, and basically swept every academic/athletic award available). In Kiefer's system, the striker needs to be able to do the most with his opportunities, and it looks like Sinclair has the skill and attacking flair to do just that.
For the most part, the defense wasn't harshly tested by Jacksonville, who seemed content to play behind the ball and counter attack without really moving any numbers forward. Particularly early in the first half, wing backs Javed Mohammed and Aubrey Perry had no problem getting forward and into the play. Mohammed, whose 11 assists last year note his service ability, delivered a wicked cross about 10 yards from the by-line on the left that found Sebastian Thuriere's head, but was stopped by JU about halfway through the first period.
If the back line is breached, Hermann Award candidate Jeff Atinella will be called upon to parry and catch all shots. He is the Preseason All-Big East net minder, and logged all of the Bulls 1,964 minutes in goal last season. His miniscule 0.83 goals against average in 2009 is a testament to his ability as well as the defense in front of him. Anor and Mohammed joined Atinella on the Big East Preseason All-Conference team.
If there was something that seemed to be an issue, it was the ability of the midfield to link up with Anor and Sinclair. Granted, JU didn't give the Bulls a lot of space and were clogging the middle, but the needed thru ball never had the right weight or direction, and too many buildups never got past the center of the park. Again, it's the first game, but the possession and passing will need to get better from the midfield. And since both sides only played their starters for the opening half, an additional 45 minutes might have given the Bulls the time they needed to unlock the Dolphins defense.
We'll keep you updated on the Half Hoops (admit it, it's working for you already) all season long. And as you may have already realized, when we write about association football around here, we will do so with flowery language inspired by the great sportswriters of Europe, and without Americanized explanations that assume you've never seen a pair of Umbro's before. It is the beautiful game, and it should be written as such, so we will come to the table assuming you have some working knowledge of the game. If you have questions not answered by Google, feel free to ask them in the comments. We promise no snarky answers for those new to soccer, as we hate the U.S. Soccerrazi and their pretense as well.