Midfielder Patrick Lopez's goal off a header in the 75th minute gave FIU the only goal it needed in Sunday's Conference USA championship game against Marshall. The 1-0 win gave FIU it's first Conference USA men's soccer title, the third conference title for the Panthers athletic department in 2015 (Swimming & Diving, Baseball, Men's Soccer) and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Midfielder Daniel Gonzalez was named Offensive MVP of the tournament. Goalkeeper Arthur Clapot was the defensive MVP. Lopez and defender Marvin Hezel also made the All-Tournament team.
FIU's last NCAA tournament appearance was 2004, the same year as their last conference title (Atlantic Soccer Conference). The NCAA announces the tournament pairings Monday afternoon.
"(Marshall) did a good job of limiting our space around the midfield," FIU coach Scott Calabrese said. "Once we got into position, you had to make a perfect pass and a perfect run. Still, we were close to scoring in the run of play. And they were dangerous on the counter and very dangerous on set pieces. They have a couple of guys who are good in the air.
"The statistics might look lopsided, but there were times in the game when we had to sharp defensively."
As conference titles go, this might be FIU's most impressive in any sport -- ever.
Conference USA's one of the best soccer conferences in the country. The last National Soccer Coaches of America Association poll included three CUSA teams (No. 11 Kentucky, No. 17 South Carolina, No. 24 Charlotte) and Old Dominion in the Others Receiving Votes. None of them made the conference tournament final. FIU knocked off Old Dominion, 4-2, and Kentucky, 1-0. Marshall took out Charlotte and South Carolina. Of the seven teams in the conference tournament, six had been ranked in the Top 25 at some point in the season.
I asked Calabrese when he thought FIU could finish on top of this savage battle royal of soccer.
"I think there were signs early on with how well we competed with UNC and Wake," Calabrese said, referring to close losses to teams now ranked No. 4 and No. 1, respectively. "It was clear we had players who could compete at that level. As the season went on, when we fell behind and were able to fight back into games, it showed we had the desire to win."
Whether within games or in the season, Calabrese liked the way FIU answered when challenged. They lost to Charlotte 1-0 in a game Calabrese felt they controlled. That was followed by a 4-3 loss to UAB when the Blazers came back from a 3-1 halftime deficit. Less than 20 minutes from a third straight loss, goals by Gonzalez and Lopez gave the Panthers a 2-1 win against Old Dominion.
"Every good team deals with adversity," Calabrese said. "What you do with it determines your season. We always fought our way back."
At least one more fight to go.