FIU travels to Duke for an NCAA tournament match in men’s soccer

FIU

FIU men’s soccer coach Kyle Russell brought two people together on Friday night.

On Sunday, he will unify 27.

That sums up the weekend for Russell, who officiated the wedding of his wife’s sister, Brianna Lynne Placeres, and her husband, Justin Holley, on Friday, flew to North Carolina on Saturday and is now set for Sunday’s 1 p.m. NCAA Tournament game between 10th-seeded FIU (14-4-1) and seventh-seeded Duke (12-1-4).

The winner advances to the NCAA quarterfinals, and, if that is FIU, the Panthers would host that match next weekend.

Russell, who was a youth minister in South Carolina before coming to FIU in February of 2020, said he was texting his assistant coaches every chance he got during Friday’s wedding.

“The team flew out on Friday,” Russell said. “When I got a break during the wedding, I was texting my staff and players: ‘Is everybody on the bus? Is everybody on the plane?’

“The response they kept giving me was, ‘Everybody is good. Focus on the wedding.’

“That’s the culture we have on this team. The honor of me being able to run the wedding — they were happy for me.”

That culture shows up on the field, too.

FIU got to the Sweet 16 round by defeating visiting New Hampshire, 3-2, on penalty kicks last Sunday.

In that game, Russell made a courageous decision to remove starting goalie Kevin Harr when the game came down to PKs.

Russell inserted veteran backup Matt Levy, and that decision led to FIU winning the shootout, 10-9. Levy blocked two shots in the 12-round shootout, and New Hampshire shot one wide to end the game.

And while Levy had been better than Harr on PKs in practice, it still took a well-adjusted goalie to accept Russell’s choice.

“I didn’t have any problem with that,” said Harr, a true freshman from Germany. “Matt is great at PKs.

“The team always comes first. That is what defines us.”

Levy, a fifth-year senior from Pembroke Pines, said it takes more than quickness and anticipation to be a great PK goalie.

A little bit of conversation can be useful, too.

“On the [game-deciding 12th PK], I was talking to the [New Hampshire shooter], making sure I was in his head,” Levy said. “I talked him into missing the whole goal.

“I’ll take credit for the save even though I didn’t touch it.”

That’s how it’s been going for FIU soccer lately.

Everything the Panthers touch — or don’t touch in this case — turns golden.

For example, during the PKs, Russell called on Andrew Bennett to take a shot. Bennett hadn’t played a minute in the game. Yet, he was ready when called upon, and he made his penalty kick.

Then, when New Hampshire fired wide left on the game’s final kick, perhaps the biggest embrace on a thrilled FIU sideline happened when Harr sprinted out to hug Levy.

Levy and Harr call their group — which also includes Tyler Hogan and Baltazar Sayan — GKU, which stands for goalkeeper’s unit.

“We support each other,” Levy said. “Goalkeeper is a hard position. Only one can play.”

Harr, meanwhile, said he learns from watching Levy on PKs.

“I see him talking a lot [to opposing players],” Harr said. “I don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s good at it. On PKs, it’s more of a mind game.

“When we won [against New Hampshire], it was pure happiness that we advanced.”

On Friday, two members of the Panthers’ extended family said: “I do.”

On Sunday, the Panthers are hoping to say two other words.

We win.