By JOHN BOSCHINI
Some people think University of South Florida goalkeeper Jeff Attinella's competitiveness is a bad thing. He disagrees.
"I'm just a very intense person," Attinella said. "I always want to win. I know I'm nowhere near the best, but if you set your goals any lower than that you're selling yourself short."
It's that intensity and hyper-competitiveness that makes USF head coach George Kiefer speak so highly of his senior goalkeeper, calling him "the best goalkeeper in the country."
"Jeff's all business," Kiefer said. "He can get after it a little bit on the field, but he brings it every single day."
When he was 9 years old, Attinella, then a baseball standout, was picked by a youth soccer coach and put in goal. Since then, everything in the keeper's life has been about soccer and the balancing act that comes along with playing the sport nearly full time.
"I didn't even make it to a prom or homecoming until my senior year in high school," Attinella said. "But if you love something you'll sacrifice for it, and soccer is definitely something I love. I've made sacrifices for it, but look at where it's gotten me."
In high school, Attinella was one of the most dominant goalkeepers in Florida, garnering four all-conference awards and being named to the all-state team as an upperclassman. His junior year, Attinella led Countryside High School to the 6-A state championship, and when recruitment time came, Kiefer took notice.
"Jeff is somebody that can really take control in the air," Kiefer said. "He has great decision making, and his reflex saves are really good. That's something you really need because of the frenetic nature of college soccer and all the nonsense that goes on sometimes with long throws and loose balls."
For Attinella, going to USF was as much about the school's proximity to his home in Clearwater, Fla., as it was about the illustriousness of the program.
"When [USF] came to talk to me I was definetly humbled by it," Attinella said. "This is the best situation for me and my family. It means my parents can come to the games and still be close to home."
When he arrived in Tampa, Antinella started as a backup, playing only two games in his first two seasons. Attinella secured the starting job his junior year, the same time goalkeeping coach Bryheem Hancock, who won the College Cup with Connecticut in 2000, signed on at USF as an assistant.
Antinella said that Hancock helped him understand the goalkeeping position better and develop a feel for how to interact and instruct defenders.
Now in his senior season, and his second year as captain of the Bulls, Attinella has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Big East, posting a conference-best .827 save percentage. Following a thrashing at UConn where he yielded four goals, Attinella rattled off a six-game shutout streak to bring the Bulls back into Big East contention.
"It was fun while it lasted," Attinella said. "It was something my defenders and I definitely took pride in. The UConn game taught us a few lessons we needed to learn and we managed to get tougher."
With the closest Major League Soccer team 900 miles away, Attinella knows that the pursuit of a professional career will take him away from Florida. This isn't an aspect of the professional game that particularly appeals to the Clearwater native, whose parents have yet to miss a home game.
"There just aren't any professional teams near Florida," acknowledged Attinella. "I've come to terms with that."
This summer, Attinella took a first step with a short training stint with Swedish side Orebro FC.
"It was a good first experience. It was my first time in Europe and it happened to be during World Cup time so it was pretty crazy over there," Attinella said. "It was an opportunity to see what it's like at the pro level over there and how teams are run and teams are organized."
With a first-round loss to West Virginia in the Big East tournament, USF sits squarely on the NCAA bubble and Attinella's college career teeters in the balance. He won't speculate on his professional future, but Antinella knows playing at the next level is the ultimate goal.
"I mean I definetly want to play professionally, but I think every college player has that ambition and, I mean, if it works out great, but if it doesn't, that's fine," Antinella said.
Kiefer is far more optimistic.
"We've already had some interest overseas and MLS clubs reaching out to do background checks," Kiefer confirmed. "I think he has the potential to play for the country. I have no doubt that he'll adjust to the pace of the game and be a fantastic pro."