Liam Rooney | Sports Director
On Thanksgiving the FIU Men’s soccer team got in the spirit and held a team feast, but now as the clock ticks closer to Sunday afternoon, the Panthers are preparing for their first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2003, facing the Duke Blue Devils in a match with mouthwatering potential.
Following a thriller with the University of New Hampshire, FIU are set to battle the Blue Devils in what could be one of the program’s most important games in the last 10 years. Kyle Russell has talked about winning a national title all season, and beating Duke puts the team on the right path to do that.
A win on Sunday, and the Panthers are in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1996.
FIU come into the game unbeaten in their last eight games, winning seven straight since their 3-3 draw with USF. That scorching form should give an already confident Panthers squad an added boost.
The challenge for FIU cannot be understated, as they couldn’t beat Duke in three previous meetings. They met in the 2018 regular season, losing 3-1 to the Blue Devils, and in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, losing that one 2-1.
“For me, Duke is another very good team, and we’ve been playing good teams all year long,” Russell said. “I respect how good they are, but that doesn’t change who we are and what we do.”
Those losses are in the minds of fans, former players and alumni, but for Russell the history doesn’t matter.
“I’m excited and honored about the opportunity,” said Russell. “I want to I want to continue to make our alumni proud by showing them who we are and what we do, but it’s just another game.”
To dance with the Blue Devils, FIU will have to be flexible in their tactical setup. Duke was ranked as high as second in the nation this season and have only lost one game, a 2-0 loss to Clemson in the ACC tournament.
Led by top scoring forward Shakur Mohammed, the Blue Devils attack with deadly precision and will force the Panthers backline to bend but not break to quell their offensive force.
FIU’s Spanish duo of David Garcia and Carlos Schekermann have been solid as the center back partnership this year, and they’ll need another massive performance on Sunday.
The Panthers played a three at the back against UNH, slotting Edgar Aguilar into the backline alongside the Spaniards. FIU might look to do something similar against Duke to get an extra body centrally and make things hard for Mohammed up top.
FIU has their own threat up front in Stephen Afrifa. The Candian forward has been electric for the Panthers all season, netting ten and assisting four. It goes without saying, but Afrifa is the key to unlocking a stout Duke defense.
The attack will always draw the attention, but the Panther midfield will be crucial in dictating the tempo of the match and a good performance from them could elevate FIU’s chances in North Carolina.
For FIU to get the win they’ll need to put in a gutsy performance and not be afraid to take risks. Duke has only lost once this season, but for a game like this, records go out the window. It comes down to the team that isn’t afraid to take a chance at potential Sweet Sixteen glory.
“Our guys are fearless,” Russell said. “Those are the guys who we recruit and those are the guys we breed here.”