For months, UCF’s men’s soccer team has played as if it has a special season in the works. On Thursday night, UCF confirmed that very notion with arguably the biggest victory in program history.
UCF stormed to a commanding two-goal lead in a dominant first half and got a third goal in the second half from emotional senior leader Yaron Bacher to rout arch-rival USF 3-0 for the second NCAA victory in school history.
“We don’t think there’s a team in the country that can stop us when we play our game,” Bacher said. “We just have to stay focused, keep working hard and not get ahead of ourselves.”
UCF got a header from Ben Hunt and a penalty kick from Nik Robson in a first half in which it outshot the Bulls (9-6-4) 10-3. The Knights won in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 when they beat FIU 1-0 in the first round.
Bacher, one of just three seniors on UCF’s youth-filled team, scored on a rocket of a kick from 25 yards out in the 65th minute to put the game out of reach. UCF’s 3-0 win is the most lopsided victory against USF in 29 games all-time.
In the final minutes of the game, head coach Bryan Cunningham embraced UCF Athletics Director Keith Tribble for an emotional hug. Cunningham told Tribble last fall that he felt UCF was on the verge of a breakthrough season, and he proved true with the Knights re-writing the record books much of this season.
“I think I was the first head coach that Keith hired here and it’s always been my goal to make him proud,” Cunningham said. “He does so much for us and for me personally and he’s always believed in us even when we weren’t so good. He believed in my vision and I love beating USF and I know he loves it when we beat USF. It’s great for our athletics department.”
UCF (12-4-3) advances to face 10th-seeded Michigan (14-4-3) on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Ann Arbor, Mich. UCF was hosting a men’s NCAA soccer game for the first time in the program’s history, and the Knights continued to be nearly unbeatable at home. The Knights posted their seventh home shutout at home this season in nine games and have allowed just three goals in Orlando all year.
UCF’s strong suit all season has been its defense. The Knights allowed just 15 goals in 18 games all season. UCF goalkeeper Shawn Doyle, who was rarely tested on Thursday, had his eighth shutout of the season.
“In the past we really hadn’t had that homefield advantage feeling, but this year we have the motto to protect our house,” Bacher said. “We’re really priding ourselves on that this year.”
The Knights had double-digit wins this season for the first time since 2004, fulfilling the vast promise that Cunningham saw in the squad coming into the season. UCF was the lone team to beat national powerhouse SMU during the regular season, and authored its longest unbeaten streak in 25 years (nine games) throughout the regular season.
UCF jumped to a 1-0 lead in the 35th minute of the first half on a header by Hunt, a sophomore, that was set up by a throw-in from the left side. Seconds later, the Knights briefly thought they had gone ahead 2-0, but Warren Creavalle’s boot from the left hit the side of the net.
UCF did take a commanding 2-0 lead in the final minute of the first half when Creavalle was fouled in the box and the Knights were awarded a penalty kick. Robson, UCF’s star sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, drilled the penalty kick past the keeper for the team’s second goal.
Robson proved himself to be an elite offensive player during the regular season, scoring nine goals and delivering nine assists to give him the 19th-best point total (27) in the nation.
“This game shows that it’s a new era for UCF,” Robson said. “I think this is the best game that UCF has ever had. I think we’re going to be really good for years to come.”
Back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since winning the Atlantic Sun three-straight years from 2002-04, UCF entered the NCAA’s ranked No. 29 in the RPI. The Knights hadn’t played since Nov. 12, a 2-1 loss to Tulsa in the Conference USA Tournament, but used that loss as motivation for Thursday’s game.
“The team was so re-energized when we found out that we got the (NCAA) bid on Monday. We’ve been awesome at home all year long and I really felt good about the game today,” Cunningham said. “USF is a tremendous team, but the boys stuck to the game plan, executed and a shutout is great against a high-powered team like them.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.