TAMPA — Dom Dwyer has the familiar accent of his London upbringing, the soccer talent to lead the Big East in scoring, and the passion to celebrate such goals with a trademark running backflip.
So the biggest question for the USF junior as the No. 7 seed Bulls host No. 10 seed New Mexico at 6 tonight in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 round is this: What makes a player leave the comforts of England to play soccer in America?
"It got to the point where it was, you go and play professional in England or you come out here, go to school, get an education, and play. You don't really have that choice in England," Dwyer said last week. "I just decided, 'Let's give it a try out here.' It's probably the best decision I've ever made."
Dwyer had been to the United States just once as a child, a visit to Disney World when he was 9. He started his college career in Texas at Tyler Junior College, helping the school to a 41-0-1 record with two national titles in his two seasons. He was named national juco player of the year, and chose the Bulls over a ton of offers.
He researched his options meticulously, but was won over by how well-organized his official visit to USF was. Everything was planned to the minute — if soccer could be this well-orchestrated, Dwyer liked the idea. When he committed to coach George Kiefer at dinner on his official visit, he got a lesson in geography and trust.
"We shook hands over the table, and he said, 'You shake a New Yorker's hand, you don't go back on your word,' " Dwyer said.
Dwyer certainly didn't, and he is still amused by the subtle things he finds in American culture — portion sizes are huge, he says, as was the preoccupation in Texas with his height. He's 5 feet 9, "quite short for a soccer player," but said height and weight are rarely what soccer players are remembered for.
So much of USF's success this season is due to the chemistry forged on a roster loaded with newcomers, including three players from Tyler, goalkeeper Chris Blais, who transferred from Michigan, and talented freshmen such as Tarpon Springs' Wes Charpie. Dwyer thinks the closeness of the players is one of USF's strengths.
"Last year, they had a great team from what I've heard, but it didn't quite click together and all work out," Dwyer said. "This year, everyone's really close off the field. We're not just teammates, then leave. I probably talk to most of the guys throughout the daytime. You're genuinely friends with them, and I think that helps, too. You want to win with your friends. You want to win for your friends."
Dwyer's 16 goals this season led the Big East and were the most by a Bull in 12 years, earning him Big East Offensive Player of the Year. One Bulls teammate is Kyle Nicholls, Dwyer's best friend since he was 8 back in London and a teammate at Tyler. Their first season at USF has been just what Dwyer envisioned. Last week's overtime win against Central Florida, with a crowd of 3,029 circling the field in berm seating, was a soccer memory London never gave him.
"I've played in stadiums which were bigger in stature, but I've never played in one that was full all the way around, with that many people in it," Dwyer said. "It was a great atmosphere. When you feel tired, you get a bit of a cramp coming, you hear the crowd roar and the adrenaline gets going and you forget about being tired and everything. You just run."