Sometimes, in the course of interviewing a soccer coach, you’ll get a thousand-word discourse on a topic, covering every angle; every bit of minutiae; in order to flesh out the understanding of where they are, and where they are headed.
Sometimes a look is as good as an answer.
Jay Vidovich has all the words. But when asked where the Pitt Men’s Soccer program stands as he embarks on his fourth year with the team, a subtle smile creeps to his face, and his eyes wander off to the distance. His look telegraphs a dozen things at once: satisfaction at the progress to date; recognition that the program is on its way to a greater goal; a mild sense of disappointment that maybe things haven’t progressed further by now.
I attempt to read his mind and say ‘I know, where does the time go, right?’; and we both laugh the laugh of a pair of middlish-aged men who have seen the years roll by a bit faster than we could have imagined.
Vidovich came to Pitt in 2016 to head up a Men’s soccer program of little success and zero prestige. The team last qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1965. In 27 years in the Big East, they never once won a championship. And since jumping to the ACC in 2013 have amassed a conference record of 4 wins, 40 losses, and 7 ties.
But building a program; turning around a program; is a process. And Vidovich’s reputation as an accomplished architect of success precedes him.
As head coach of Wake Forest’s men’s soccer program from 1994 to 2014, Vidovich guided the Demon Deacons to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, and in 2007, Wake won the NCAA Men’s Championship. That team featured two future MLS standouts, Ike Opara and Sam Cronin, and a future NCAA Division I coach, Jamie Franks.
So where is Pitt in this ‘process’?
“I think (the program) has stabilized,” Vidovich says. “We’re very young, if you look at it. When we play Liberty, we’ll probably have six Freshman starting. I like the potential of it. We feel like we have some depth we can work with. We have some people that can develop into the players we want to be. We’re happy about that.”
The entire squad has only two seniors; midfielders Braden Kline and Alex Peperak, and against Indiana and Northwestern in the team’s first two matches of the season, Vidovich rolled out a lineup featuring five sophomores and freshman. Pitt lost both those matches in a nailbiting fashion. They fell to #2-ranked Indiana on the road in double-overtime, 3 to 2, and were defeated in Evanston, Illinois, 1 to 0.
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Vidovich is happy at the progress, but he also believes there’s work to be done. On this day, the team spent the entire practice on a shrunken pitch, working in tight spaces on quick passes and making lightning-fast decisions. That goes towards want the coach thinks the team needs in order to round into form at this early stage of the year.
“It’s mental fitness,” Vidovich explains. “Guys are throwing up end-of-the-season levels of movement and pace and distances, but their brain is still in pre-season.”
Team cohesion and a collective understanding is also a work-in-progress for the Panthers. “We had like two or three guys on the team that played last year, so to be on the same page is a difficult thing. We got French guys, German guys, Spanish guys, Pittsburgh Yinzers, you got em all. We’ve got to get that mental piece – knowing what to do , what your teammate is going to do, you know what I’m going to do when I do my thing. That takes some time.”
In addition to learning what their fellow teammates are going to do, the Pitt men’s team also need to figure out what Coach Vidovich wants them to do. Vidovich plays a fairly aggressive style of defense – a high pressing and trapping system that hopes to force opponents into turnovers in their own end en route to easy goals for the Panthers. “We’re a team that will press. That’s a main philosophy.”
Pitt will get their first chance to play for the home fans tonight when they take on Liberty at Ambrose Urbanic Field at 7 PM. Their next match, at home against Delaware on Monday, September 9, might well be regarded as the final tuneup. After that, the Panthers will battle Vidovich’s former employer Wake Forest, the current #1 ranked team in the nation on Friday, September 13 to open their ACC season.
Pitt’s first three seasons for Coach Vidovich have all ended with last-place finishes in the ACC Conference Coastal Division, a trend Vidovich hopes to end this year. “I don’t expect to finish at the bottom of the conference, and our aspirations are to finish at the top.”
Vidovich clearly isn’t daunted by the challenge ahead. Pitt are going to take some lumps – they’re going to lose to many of their ranked opponents – but they are also going to develop their young players and keep progressing. That bright, successful future may yet be off in the distance, but you can tell that Jay Vidovich sees where he’s going, and has a plan for how to get there.