It might sound hyperbolic to claim that the 2019 Pitt Men’s soccer team could be the best soccer team in the university’s history. It is not.
An afterthought and also-ran in college soccer since the sport rose to prominence in America, the Pitt men’s program has few accomplishments to speak of in its entire history. The last time the team qualified for the NCAA tournament was in 1965. They spent almost 30 years as members of the Big East Conference, but never once took home a trophy – finishing as the runner-up in 1995.
After jumping to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, Pitt were nothing more than a cellar-dwelling bottom feeder until only recently.
From 2013 to 2015, Pitt did not qualify for the ACC tournament and were utterly winless in ACC conference play, compiling a dismal 0-21-5 record. In 2016 and 2017, Pitt qualified for the ACC Tournament, but only because the competition had been expanded to include every team in the ACC regardless of finish. The Panthers were dispatched both times in the first round by lopsided scores.
The team’s fortunes finally began to change in 2018.
It was that season that Pitt earned the university’s first ACC tourney win with a 2-0 upset over the University of Virginia, a storied soccer program and seven-time winner of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament that had been nationally ranked coming into the game.
This season has built on last year in a big way.
The Panthers had their best ACC season ever with a 4-3-1 record. Two of those wins were over nationally-ranked opponents – an October 11 win over #22 Virginia Tech, and a shocking road upset of #1-ranked Virginia on October 18. In looking back at the regular season, Pitt Head Coach Jay Vidovich felt that the win over Virginia was a statement victory that highlights the capabilities of this team. “Going to Virginia, putting two goals on them and keeping a clean sheet was just a testament to the growth of our players and their strength.”
Add to that victories over perennial soccer powerhouses Denver University and Akron, and a close-call defeat against #2-ranked Indiana, and it tells you that this Pitt team can play with the best of the best in college soccer. But they don’t just want to compete with the best – they want to beat them. “We had a lack of momentum at the beginning of the season”, says striker Edward Kizza. “Against Indiana we took a two-goal lead, and then we just couldn’t get the job done.”
Over the year, the story for the Panthers was about having the depth and character to deal with adversity. The season began with key central defender Arturo Ordonez having to sit out two games due to NCAA rules regarding the time of his arrival on campus. The team also lost key players Rodrigo Almeda and Sito Sena to injury over the past few weeks, requiring adjustment. The team hung together, throughout it all though, and from beginning to end, the Pitt Panthers have steadily improved. “We keep battling. The collective has been very strong,” says Vidovich. Kizza agrees: “Once we went on during the season and started getting big wins, there was momentum. Right now, things are paying off, the things that the coaches have told the players. Right now, you can see the results.”
Kizza also sees the arc of growth from 2018 to 2019 can be attributed to the addition to some of the new players . “This year the incoming players, you put those pieces together with me, and it makes an improvement.” Players like Veljko Petkovic and Valentin Noel, a pair of freshman midfielders from Europe who have both been significant contributers to the team in goals and assists; and centerback Arturo Ordonez who has steadied the backline, have been a big part of Pitt’s emergence.
Sunday at 3pm, they will play the unfamiliar role of being favorites. Their conference record earned them a first-round bye to the quarterfinals and #4 seed. They will face the #5 seed North Carolina State at their home field high above Oakland, Ambrose Urbanic Field; it is the first time Pitt have hosted an ACC tournament match. The Wolfpack made it to the quarterfinals by getting past Duke with a 2-1 victory on November 6 in the play-in round.
— ACC Men's Soccer (@ACCMSoccer) November 6, 2019
Head Coach Jay Vidovich has been the architect of the team’s revival, and he was enthusiastic about the team’s preparations in advance of the big game. “There was good energy. Now that we have an opponent, the boys are feeling good energy. They have good concentration for this game.”
Vidovich previewed NC State as a challenging opponent to deal with.
“NC State is a quality team – organized, disciplined. They have a really balanced team. They have a lot going for them.”
Vidovich highlighted defenders Pepe Garcia and Pablo Pedregosa, both academy products from top clubs in Spain, as quality opponents that the Panthers would need to deal with. The biggest worry for Pitt will be in dealing with offense fulcrum David Loera and his favorite target, striker Kuda Muskwe. Coach Vidovich called the attacking midfielder Loera “one of the best players in the country. He can get at people with pace on the flank”; and called sophomore forward Muskwe “a handful”.
The coach thinks his team are peaking at the right time for this match, and that Pitt will be up for the challenge come Sunday. “We’ve found the boys have resiliency. You can’t count us out.
Photo c/o: University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department