by Maya Washburn
Campus life exploded in the stands of the FIU soccer field in the fall of 2022 as the men’s team kicked its way to victory and brought together a university community eager to cheer them on.
The team won its conference champion title two years running – the first as a member of Conference-USA (which no longer sponsors soccer) and the second in the talent-laden American Athletic Conference, a powerhouse in the sport.
The feat last year earned FIU a Top 10 ranking from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Already this season, the team (2-0-1) has risen as high as No. 7 nationally in the United Soccer Coaches poll, and fans are coming out to the campus stadium to witness the action.
The rush of support last year surprised even head coach Kyle Russell, who along with the players was swept up in an emotional tide.
“What's happening at FIU with men's soccer is something like I've never seen before at other universities, and it's amazing,” Russell says.
He cites 2022 sold-out home games, overflow spectators watching the action from outside the fences and the university adding more stadium seating for post-season matches to accommodate enthusiasts.
A record number of fans came out to see the team play last season, with the 1,000-person capacity stretched to the limit three times in back-to-back-to-back games.
Even the Panthers of the baseball team made a regular activity of coming out to root for their fútbol counterparts, bringing with them noisemakers and outsized enthusiasm to stoke excitement and show their pride.
An international team
Developing a top-tier program takes effort and innovation. In FIU’s case, it also takes the human touch, both in high supply on the part of players and coaches.
“There is a strong brotherhood between the team,” Russell says. “It's really cool to see because it's not a bunch of guys from the same part of the world. It's literally guys from everywhere.”
Currently, 15 countries are represented on the 27-man roster. The 23 international players come from the soccer powerhouses of Latin America (Mexico and Brazil) and Europe (Denmark and France) in addition to locales such as Japan, Ghana and Iceland.
The student-athletes’ shared experience in learning to adapt to a new culture has helped them to build camaraderie, they say.
Defender Edgar Aguilar, an international business major, arrived at FIU from Mexico on the same day that midfielder Matthias Lavenant, an economics major, arrived from France. Both were still learning English at the time.
“The fact that the language was new for both of us brought us together,” Aguilar says. “Matthias and I used to whistle in place of English words that we didn't know yet. We face the same challenges, and that brings us together.”
Bernardo dos Santos Monteiro, a sports management major from Portugal, says close friendships are what he appreciates most about playing for FIU.
“I love the energy that we built at FIU and the family that we created,” Monteiro says. “It's an incredible feeling to play with people that I genuinely love and want the best for. Our team really realized that we have to play for each other. We're all chasing the same thing, so it's very enjoyable.”
Building the whole person
And credit the four-member coaching staff for an intentional focus on strengthening those bonds.
Through group activities such as daytrips to South Beach, backyard barbecues and more, they aim to achieve a goal as important to them as winning matches: fostering lasting connections, among the players and with the staff.
“We're trying to do things differently,” Russell says. “This is a relationship for life, not just a relationship for the team’s time at FIU. We have high standards and high accountability, but we also make sure we operate through love.”
Sometimes that means simply “being there” for a student-athlete, whether he wants extra help on the field or off.
Beyond drills and skills training, thoughtful advice from a trusted guide on matters such as personal finances and relationships can pay dividends for individuals personally and the team collectively.
Helping the young men during a pivotal time in their lives motivates the entire crew, Russell explains. “We want to be that coaching staff that had an impact on the guys’ lives, even if they don’t know it at the time.”
Up next: The Panthers play UCF tonightat 7 p.m. in Orlando. They return home on Friday, Sept. 8, to take on New Hampshire.