There were two unbeaten teams in NCAA Division I men’s soccer during the 2017 regular season, one of them being Big Ten powerhouse Indiana with a 14-0-4 record, but the other would likely slip your mind. Florida International has stated its case as one of the top teams in the nation this year, posting an incredible 11-0-4 record under first-year Head Coach Kevin Nylen, coasting to the Conference USA regular-season title and earning a first-round bye in the postseason conference tournament.
Coming off a strong 2015 in which the Panthers won the CUSA Tournament and earned their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, the Panthers regressed in 2016. After posting a 10-7-2 record and falling to New Mexico in the conference tournament in 2016, Florida International sought to turn things around by bringing in Nylen, who had served as an assistant in the program from 2012-2015. The move proved a prescient one, as by the end of the season it was impossible for the United Soccer Coaches to ignore the Panthers, who reached an impressive No. 8 national ranking in the final poll of the season. A result Nylen states was down to a mixture of familiarity and approach by the players towards every match.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with a great group of young men and a great staff,” Nylen told USLPDL.com “Being here as an assistant from 2012 through the 2015 season, I know every single guy in this program, I recruited every single guy, so I have a familiarity. When I took the job back in December, there wasn’t a single guy I didn’t know. But the success comes from the group. We as the staff try our best to give the players as much insight and direction at training, and it’s up to them to execute the game plan. They’ve been great, and yes, as the head coach, the wins and losses will come back onto me, but this has been a really exciting season up to this point for anyone who is a part of the program. The success goes to everybody, but especially the players.”
“It’s been a huge advantage coming in as a first year head coach to a program where I know everybody. I don’t look at myself- I know it’s my first year, but it doesn’t feel like my first year.”
Photo by Florida International Athletics
It’s rare for a first-year coach to have a significant level of success in the extremely volatile college soccer landscape, and to go undefeated in year one is essentially unprecedented. Not only did FIU complete an unbeaten regular season, but the team did so with the most potent offense in NCAA DI. The Panthers averaged an astounding 3.07 goals per game, good for best in the nation, and weren’t defensive pushovers either, allowing a very solid 1.13 goals per game. With numbers like that, it’s almost difficult to not win.
One of the few major threats to a team so strong is complacency, as winning with regularity can lead to an erroneous sense of invincibility. It’s an attitude creep that Nylen is aware of, but one he also believes his team is built to avoid. He cites the attitudes of his team, particularly players like SIMA Aguilas standout Santiago Patino, as the main factor in maintaining focus and drive amid win after win. It’s a sentiment Patino echoes towards the coaching staff.
“I’ve said this from the beginning, the guys have had a really good approach to training every day and what they want to do as a team,” Nylen said. “It’s a very difficult task to go undefeated, and we and Indiana are the only two teams in college soccer to have not lost a game in the regular season heading into the post-season tournament. But it doesn’t change anything that we’re doing in regards to our training exercises and our daily focus to continue to get better. The guys have been tremendous all season, and I don’t see that changing.”
“The coaching and training staff are great,” Patino said. “They take good care of our bodies and make sure we’re ready to play. The training sessions go very well, and then we keep our attitude as ready to learn and grow and that leads us to success.”
Photo by Florida International Athletics
As a result, the team maintained its focus throughout the entire season and managed to get to the end with a big zero in the loss column. The team ran through the second half of the season on a high, winning seven consecutive matches before settling for a draw against Kentucky in the regular-season finale. Having clinched the top spot in CUSA, the team also secured a key first-round bye in the postseason tournament and a ticket directly to the semifinals. But again, Nylen won’t let complacency creep into his team.
“It’s nice to be able to have a bye and play into a semifinal game, since it rewards the guys for their hard work all season long,” said Nylen. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to play a very strong team in whoever it is that comes out of the quarterfinal game. So we look at it as it’s great that we received the bye based on our play during the season, but this is now a two-week stand of preparing for a really difficult postseason in our conference.”
One of the key components of FIU’s season was the productivity of star forward Patino, who established himself as one of the dominant attacking forces across college soccer this season. Patino’s 15 goals were good for second nationally, as he led the No. 1-ranked Panthers offense and converted 31.3 percent of his shots and recorded a team-leading three game-winning goals. He did all of this while starting every match for FIU, cementing his place as the team’s MVP.
The 2017 season was a continuation of the growth that Patino displayed over his time at FIU. In his freshman year, Patino recorded just two goals in limited time. He quadrupled that in his sophomore year to eight total goals, before nearly doubling that total again to 15 in his junior season. Over those three seasons, he’s maintained a humble attitude of continuing growth and credits those around him with aiding his development.
“We have a great team this year, we have an amazing coaching and training staff,” Patino said. “The whole spring and summer I tried in training to finish every goal-scoring chance I had. Now in games, I have the confidence to go out and score and finish the opportunities that I have.”
“It’s all a process. When I got to FIU, there were some parts of my games I needed to work on, and every year I’ve gotten better. Now, this year it has all come together and gone very well.”
Photo by Florida International Athletics
His impressive numbers and FIU’s success has Patino’s name filtering into the ears of more and more professional scouts and teams. At his current pace, he’ll likely have a major decision to make soon between continuing his career at FIU and moving on to the next level.
It’s a position that is familiar to his coach, as Nylen went professional after completing his time at Saint Anselm College in 2002. Nylen elevated to the pro ranks with the USL’s Wilmington Hammerheads FC, where he’d make 42 appearances before concluding his career with the Charleston Battery. He believes the growth of the USL over the past 15 years since his professional debut has created a parallel growth in opportunities for upcoming players today like Patino.
“I think the continued growth of the USL is massive,” Nylen said. “I came out of college in 2003 and had signed with the Wilmington Hammerheads while I was in school, and when I graduated, I came down full-time, and at the end of the season, I was loaned out to the Virginia Beach Mariners for the end of their season within the A-League. After that, I progressed to playing with the Charleston Battery in my later years. If you look at the landscape now, the opportunities that young players have within the USL and the PDL, I wish I was growing up now versus 15-20 years ago, just based upon the quality of coaching, the quality of teams and the opportunities that are available for the young American players to continue their development. I look at the USL, and I think its maturation has been exponential in terms of how many teams there are in the USL, and then if you look at the PDL for all the younger kids who are not professionals, the chances that they have when they break from their college seasons to continue to play. I can only hope it continues to grow in that direction, and it has been a pleasure to see the growth in this country as someone who grew up here and had the chance to play in the USL for a bit.”
With any fortune, Patino will hopefully follow in his coach’s footsteps and establish himself as a talented professional at the next level. He wouldn’t be the first player in FIU history to do so, as the program’s track record is littered with those who have remained in the game in some capacity, with many pursuing coaching in the U.S. at the pro level.
Among the notable alumni of the Panthers soccer program are Greg Vanney, currently attempting to lead Toronto FC to an MLS Cup after winning the 2017 Supporters’ Shield, his assistant Robin Fraser, San Jose Earthquakes assistant coach Steve Ralston, former Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar and Atlanta United center back Bobby Boswell, among others. That tradition, combined with the academic size and geographical location of FIU in South Florida, gives Nylen hope that the program can continue to be a powerhouse for years to come.
“We have a massive tradition here with former players,” said Nylen. “At the end of the day, you’re dealing with the only Division I-soccer university in South Florida. We have a great university in terms of the educational side of things, providing an international business program that’s top-ten in the country, as well as a strong economics program, and you name it. We’ve got over 200 majors. So you have that academic side, and then you have the appeal of being in Miami. If you look at the talent pool in South Florida and in Florida in general, we’ve got a ton of really good soccer players in our backyard. I think FIU has been historically very strong, but then took a little dip, and now we’ve revitalized it and brought it back. I think this is how it should be and how it will hopefully continue to be moving forward. There’s a lot of history, and I hope we can continue to make history with the group that we have.”
Photo by Florida International Athletics
Part of continuing that history is utilizing those leaps and bounds in development that soccer has made in the U.S. since Nylen’s playing days. Unlike then, college players are now able to play year-round thanks to the Premier Development League. and Nylen heavily encourages his players to participate as Patino did in 2017 with the Aguilas.
“I think the PDL can provide a number of factors for players,” said Nylen. “It allows them to play with new players, to play for quality coaches, to hear different ideas and systems, to be in a new environment geographically and allows them to play in the summer when we have a break. It’s everything that a striving soccer player wants because it bridges the gap that we have in college soccer with the summers being off. I think it’s a great league and resource for all college players to be able to continue to stay sharp within the summer, to play with other great soccer players within strong teams coached by very quality coaches, for them to continue their maturation with an entirely new experience altogether. Some coaches are hesitant to let their players play in new systems, but I see it as a chance to keep playing competitive games, and these guys need to play more games since they only get so many from us in the spring. They need more training and more soccer experience. It opens their eyes to a new experience for them to continue to develop. I look at it as a massive positive, and we try to have as many of our players compete in the PDL.
“One of the best benefits is that, since during the summer, we don’t have school, we get to focus solely on soccer, which can help us improve a lot,” said Patino. “In college, you have to worry about your classes and study, but during the PDL season you can worry only about soccer.
“The PDL was a fantastic experience. It was nice to be able to just focus on soccer in the summer, just to train and play games. I was injured for a month and a half, but that’s part of soccer. But the PDL with [Head Coach] Mike [Potempa] and [Staff Coach] Fernando [Argila, Sr.] was awesome, we had a great team with great players, the league was competitive, every game was hard-fought, and it was a fun summer.”