By Official Florida FC

Marshall’s run to its first NCAA championship in the spring undoubtedly infused programs across the country with the belief that they too could make a run at immortality. The Thundering Herd claimed the crown with a clutch of Floridians on their roster and will need to go through a pair of Florida programs in their quest to repeat.

Here are five things to watch ahead of the 2021 men’s college soccer season:

Conference USA

Florida International is seeking its first NCAA tournament berth since 2017 while their rivals 35-miles north in Boca Raton, Florida Atlantic, are coveting its first trip to the tournament.

FIU finished third in the conference, despite only conceding nine times in nine games. The Panthers were 4-4-1 overall and 3-3-1 in conference play. FIU lost a trio of 1-0 games last year, including one to the eventual national champions.

FIU will have to find people who can score goals as last year’s leading scorer Alessandro Campoy graduated.

Further north, Florida Atlantic finished fifth in Conference USA, but that was considered a tremendous success for the Owls. FAU recorded its first winning season since 2007 when it finished with a 6-4-2 overall record.

“The guys are hungry,” FAU head coach Joey Worthen said at the end of the spring 2021 season. “[They] are excited, so we are also really excited for the future, the future of this program and the trajectory that we are on and hope to continue to go along the way.”

FAU conceded a program-low 11 goals in 12 games last year.

Senior goalie Neil Strauber is one of 10 returning starters for the Owls. He recorded four clean sheets during the spring season and will be expected to anchor a defense that tremendously improved in the spring season.

American Athletic Conference

South Florida has its work cut out for them this season. The Bulls lost four straight to end the spring season with a 4-6 record, marking the program’s first losing season since 2018 and first losing season in conference since 2012.

Their preseason this year hasn’t been much better. The Bulls lost to the University of Tampa in the Rowdies Cup on Tuesday night.

Up the road in Orlando, USF enters the season ranked No. 13 in the preseason United Soccer Coaches poll after an 9-4-1 season in the spring. The Knights will be led by senior defender Yanis Leerman, who was a second team All-American last year. When Leerman was on the pitch, UCF was 8-2-1 and conceded nine goals in 11 matches – with four of those coming in UCF’s season-ending loss to Pitt in the Sweet 16.

Gino Vivi led the Knights in assists in 2019 and was the team’s leading scorer in the spring season, recording five goals and four assists in 1,247 minutes.

UCF started the spring season 1-3 but roared back to win six straight to win the American Athletic Conference tournament title. Leerman and the Knights will have to hit the ground running this fall considering UCF hosts a pair of Florida programs, FIU and UNF, before a Labor Day weekend trek to North Carolina to face Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.

ASUN Conference

Jacksonville University advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years this spring when the Dolphins upset Florida Gulf Coast in the tournament final.

Jacksonville University and Florida Gulf Coast were the top two selections in the preseason ASUN poll. Forward Reed Davis – a two-time winner of Florida’s Mr. Soccer award – has been just as prolific at the collegiate level. Davis was named the preseason Player of the Year following a spring season where he scored a conference-leading five goals.

Florida Gulf Coast finished second in the conference. The Eagles will be hungry to clinch their fifth NCAA Tournament berth, and first in five years, following a disappointing end of their spring season.

Florida Gulf Coast had a two-goal lead over Jacksonville University in the ASUN final when the pitch became unplayable. The teams had to return the next day and Jacksonville ran out to a 3-0 win.

UNF was picked to finish fifth in the eight-team conference following a 4-3-3 season. The Ospreys scored only nine goals in the spring season. Forward Jovoney Brown was a super sub in the spring season, but the six-footer from Jamaica who has scored everywhere he has played may need to play a larger role if the Ospreys are to challenge their crosstown rivals for the ASUN crown.

Stetson was picked to prop up the conference following a 1-5-2 spring season.

Sunshine State Conference

One of the best conferences in Division II soccer did not play during the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Predicting who will emerge from the SSC is usually a fool’s errand because of the depth of quality. Lynn is ranked No. 3 in the preseason United Soccer Coaches poll and Palm Beach Atlantic is ranked 13th to start the season.

When Lynn last fielded a team the Knights were 16-2-2 and advanced to the national semifinals. Lukas Ostermann, the massive 6-foot-6-inch German forward is back from the 2019 team. Behind him will be senior midfielders Alexandre Horveno and Lukas Börner, both of whom helped the Des Moines Menace win the USL League Two championship this summer.

Tampa may have finished 6-8-1 in 2019, but the Spartans added Florida’s Mr. Soccer from the 2021 season, Marcello Valbuena to a team that was shutout four times in its last season on the pitch. Tampa will enter the season with confidence following its first win over USF since 2014.

Hale the conquering forward

Lafayette will be on the hunt for its first NCAA Tournament berth in nine years. The Leopards were close during the spring season but lost their only match of the season in the Patriot League Tournament final.

Leading the Leopards was Floridian forward Hale Lombard. The 6-foot-4-inch junior from Pinellas County scored five goals in eight games for Lafayette in the spring.

Though he wasn’t selected to the preseason Patriot League team, Lombard, who had four goals and three assists in only 857 minutes during his freshman year, has blossomed into a reliable collegiate goal scorer. If Lafayette is to get over the hump — the Leopards have lost in the conference tournament final in each of the last two seasons — Lombard may be the man who helps them get there.

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