FIU men’s soccer ranked No. 8, one of two unbeatens in nation

FIU Midfielder Donald Tomlinson (26) advances the ball in the first half as the FIU Golden Panthers defeated the University of New Mexico Lobos, 4-0, on October 21, 2017.
FIU Midfielder Donald Tomlinson (26) advances the ball in the first half as the FIU Golden Panthers defeated the University of New Mexico Lobos, 4-0, on October 21, 2017. Courtesy FIU

So, it turns out Miami FC isn’t the only soccer team reaching the national spotlight from the Florida International University campus.

While Miami FC played its way to first place in the NASL and earned the right to host a league semifinal match on Nov. 5, the FIU men’s team has quietly risen to No. 8 in the nation and is one of just two unbeaten Division I teams heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Kentucky.

The Panthers, under first-year coach Kevin Nylen, are 11-0-3 and 6-0-1 in Conference USA. The other unbeaten team is second-ranked Indiana (13-0-3). Junior forward Santiago Patino leads the nation with 14 goals in 14 games, and the team averages three goals per game, also among the best in the NCAA.

Nobody on the FIU roster was alive in the early 1980s, when legendary coach Karl Kremser led the Panthers to two Division II national championships and two second-place finishes. A couple of the seniors were infants in 1996, when FIU reached the Division I national title game.

Nylen, who has made it a point to give his players an FIU soccer history lesson, has been in regular contact with Kremser and several former players, and invited Kremser to speak to the team.

He wants his players to know that the only national titles ever won by an FIU team in any sport were won by the men’s soccer team. He wants them to know that long before they wore those jerseys, they were worn by players who went on to Major League Soccer, players such as Robin Fraser, Steve Ralston, Tyrone Marshall, Jeff Cassar and Greg Vanney.

“Those guys put FIU on the national soccer map; but unfortunately, the program had become irrelevant for some years there,” Nylen said. “We want to revitalize the program, get people talking about FIU again, and get our local kids to stay and play here. South Florida has such a massive population that loves soccer. We have such a great talent pool here, and we need to take advantage of that.”

In fact, over Kremser’s 27 years as coach, 40 players wound up playing professionally. Despite the program’s success and national reputation, FIU dropped men’s soccer on Jan. 16, 2003, as it turned its energy to the new football program. The decision was reversed a day later after alumni and community protests, but the mood around the program had soured.

Kremser retired in 2007, and the program took a slide. Scott Calabrese began to turn things around in 2015, and Nylen was an assistant on his staff.

Nylen left in the spring of 2016 to join the staff of MLS club Orlando City. Eight months later, in December 2016, Calabrese left FIU for University of Central Florida and Nylen returned to take over the Panthers program.

“It was a pretty easy decision because I recruited all these FIU players, was very familiar with their talent, so there was a familiarity and continuity from my end and theirs,” Nylen said. “They knew what kind of coach I am, how I like to train, and they’ve been very focused from Day One.”

Ten of the players on the FIU roster are from Dade and Broward counties. Eleven are internationals — four from France, and the rest from Italy, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Haiti, Norway, Germany and Iceland. Four total come from other U.S. states.

“We have a niche here with our local talent and the ability to attract foreign players to a global city like Miami,” Nylen said.

Senior midfielder Donald Tomlinson and freshman midfielder Matias Barraza are among the locals who are thriving under Nylen. Tomlinson is a Jamaican-American from Hollywood who played at American Heritage High and played club at Miramar United and West Pines United. Barraza is of Argentine origin, played at Doral Academy and Weston FC.

“There is so much talent on the clubs down here with Weston, West Pines, Kendall, Miramar, so hopefully, our success will convince other South Florida players to stay at FIU,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t know much about the old FIU teams, but Karl Kremser spoke to us at the South Carolina game, and we realize that we should be where those teams were, in Final Fours and winning our conference.”

Both players said Nylen deserves much of the credit for the team’s success this season.

“Our team is very motivated, and we are required to have a lot of discipline,” Barraza said. “The whole country is watching us now, expecting us to fail, and that makes us play even harder.”

The Panthers’ goal is to win the Conference USA title, and then make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The conference tournament is Nov. 8-12 in Norfolk, Virginia.

“I’m originally from Boston, so I’m a Bill Belichick guy, and we take it one game at a time,” Nylen said. “We have a very good team. How far can we go? I can’t comment on that. But we have an identity now. People know who we are again.”

Who’s leading

EPL: Manchester City (25), Manchester United and Tottenham (20), Chelsea and Arsenal (16).

La Liga: Barcelona (25), Valencia (21), Real Madrid (20), Atletico (19), Leganes (17).

Serie A: Napoli (28), Inter (26), Juventus and Lazio (25), Roma (21).

Bundesliga: Dortmund and Bayer (20), Leipzig (19), Hoffenheim and Schalke (16).

Ligue I: PSG (29), Monaco (22), Nantes (20), Lyon (19), Marseilles (18).

NASL: Miami FC (30), San Francisco (28), Carolina (23), NY Cosmos (18), Jacksonville (16).

MLS: East — Toronto (69), NYCFC (57), Chicago and Atlanta (55). West — Portland and Seattle (53), Vancouver (52), Houston (50).