Florida International U

Despite early predictions, the FIU Panthers soccer team is confident in its future

FIU men’s soccer coach Kevin Nylen before a game.
FIU men’s soccer coach Kevin Nylen before a game. FIU

FIU’s men’s soccer team, which in 2017 reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing at Duke, isn’t highly regarded this season. The Panthers were picked to finish just fifth in the eight-team Conference USA standings.

But that doesn’t worry FIU coach Kevin Nylen.

“I will let people think that,” Nylen said. “Rank us last if they want.”

Some experts are likely down on the Panthers because of some of the talent that has left FIU’s campus in the past couple of years, including Major League Soccer first-round picks Paul Marie in 2018 and Santiago Patino (2019).

In addition, two-time C-USA first-team midfielder Joris Ahlinvi has transferred and is on the Indiana Hoosiers’ roster.

No worries, though. FIU is off to a 3-0-1 start, using a deep bench to win on back-to-back nights on its opening weekend and then rallying from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to tie Jacksonville University 3-3 this past Friday in a game that went to double overtime and beating Seton Hall 2-1 on Sunday.

In the tie against Jacksonville, FIU scored twice in the final five minutes of regulation to force OT.

On opening weekend, four different Panthers scored in a 5-1 win over St. Bonaventure, and three different Panthers scored in a 3-1 victory over James Madison, which made it to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals last year.

“We’ve had a couple of special players in our program the past two years — not to say we don’t have special players in this group now,” Nylen said. “But this is a collective group. It’s exciting as a staff, knowing the depth we have.

“We tell our players to train hard because we need everybody. Last year, I think teams felt if they took away [Patino’s] scoring opportunities, they would beat us. This year, we have to do it by committee, and I’m fine by that.”

FIU is balanced across its recruiting classes, with seven freshmen, six sophomores, seven juniors and seven seniors/graduate students on its roster. More than 20 FIU players got onto the pitch in each of its first two games, an indication of the depth.

But two stars have emerged so far, and they are both fifth-year seniors from Broward County who redshirted in 2015 as FIU freshman: 5-11 central midfielder Andrew Booth and 6-3 goalie Daniel Gagliardi.

Booth, who is from University School, entered this season having played 47 games for FIU, including 29 starts. He had two goals and a team-high four assists in 17 games last year. So far this year, he leads FIU with six points — two goals and two assists — and was named Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Week after his first two games.

“He’s a strong guy who covers a lot of ground,” Nylen said of Booth, who played 150 minutes in that span of roughly 24 hours.

Gagliardi, who is from St. Thomas Aquinas, started a combined total of just 12 games in his first four years at FIU. He is allowing just 1.42 goals in four starts so far this year.