The post-game smile brimming from Head Coach Jay Vidovich said it all.
On Sunday, Pitt’s men’s soccer program reached another new milestone in beating North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s quarterfinal, 2-1, in overtime, earning its first-ever home playoff win in the ACC tournament.
The Panthers have now advanced to a new frontier, the ACC semifinals, where they’ll take on top-seeded Clemson on Wednesday evening.
In just four years time, Vidovich, who built and National Championship level program at Wake Forest, has done what he came to Pitt to do — rebuild the program into a winner in the ACC, the toughest soccer conference in the land.
Sunday’s win provided another affirmation of Pitt’s turnaround under Vidovich.
At home, before a packed, standing room overflow crowd at Ambrose Urbanic Field, Vidovich’s Panthers looked strong early, weathered a bit of a second half storm, then turned things up a notch at the end and into extra time, when Edward Kizza scored his second goal of the match in the 94th minute.
“We had a tremendous start to the match,” Vidovich said in his post game meet-up in the women’s locker room area that served as media interview room. “We had some quick counters and we were finding some joy in that. We had a goal called back when they had to go to the TV to see if went in or not. So, great start to the game, and then I think we kind of faulted out a little bit. We just tried to hang on in the half and I think that continued in the second half. Overtime, I couldn’t have asked anything more of the guys from their heart and mentality, to tactically what they did. It was just fantastic. I’m just really happy for the guys.”
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MAKING NC STATE PAY
Riding the energy from playing before a lively home crowd, and with fresh legs after having more than a week off, playing into a pretty steady wind, Pitt carried most of the possession and rode the early momentum of the match.
After a few decent advances, and a couple crosses from Alexander Dexter, Pitt’s quick, counter striking ability came to the forefront.
Midfielder Veljko Petvovic intercepted a NC State pass near the circle, then the freshman from Serbia turned on the jets — dribbling quickly right to the center of the attacking third, and drawing a pair of defenders.
This quickly opened things up for Dexter, who alertly made a wide left run as soon as the NC State pass attempt was picked off. Petrovic played it wide to Dexter, who cut into the box, and played a terrific ball to the far post that Kizza banged home for the early lead.
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) November 10, 2019
It was exactly the way Vidovich wants his team to execute and take advantage of counter opportunities.
With speed and timing.
With ability to finish.
“We’ve been dangerous on the breaks most of the year,” Vidovich said. “It’s a really important thing to find that. (Alexander) Dexter, when he finds those spaces, and when he’s given the ball in those spaces, they have a really great connection. Their timing is fantastic.”
Pitt could have taken a 2-0 lead in the 34th minute, but Kizza’s shot from the top of the box hit underneath the bar, lined down right on the edge of the goal line, but was cleared away by NC State.
It was pretty close — and the officials went to the VAR to check the replay.
The ruling was no goal.
From there, Pitt would close out the half still up 1-0, but probably missed out on taking a commanding lead.
“We had several almost chances. We had the one that was called back. Those sequences, we were real excited about, but it wasn’t enough. We didn’t have enough variety.”
Pitt really did control the match through the first 45 minutes, with a decisive edge in shots (5-0) and possession.
WEATHERING THE STORM
The Panthers came close early in the second half again.
On its first possession in the 46th minute, they knocked it around the edge of the box, eventually finding Dexter in space on the left side of the box. Dexter took too long to pull trigger on a shot attempt, which was blocked, and deflected into the air. Kizza came flying in to head the ball toward an open spot on the right side of goal, but NC St’s Pablo Pedregosa was in position to deny the goal, heading the ball away from danger.
Then, from there the Wolfpack started to turn the tables on the match, starting in the 51st minute when midfielder Tyler Gabarra received a ball with his back to goal from 14 yards, turned and drilled a shot that forced Pitt’s goalkeeper Arie Ammann into his first save of the day.
NC State kept coming — and two minutes later — after an initial shot attempt hit the face of Pitt’s defender Arturo Ordonez, NC State’s George Asomani redirected the deflection from the top of the box into the back of the net to even the match.
“In tournament play, It’s do or die. Single Elimination. When you behind, you have nothing to lose, you just push,” Vidovich explained. “They (NC State) did a good job pushing. They came on, they battled. Early in second half, we had a great chance to get up by two. But nobody could get into the gaps. I think they got tired.”
Pitt played on its heels for large portions of the second half, as NC State out shot the Panthers 7-5.
It was NC St’s Ivy Brisma and David Loera who each provided all kinds of fits for Pitt, winning midfield battles — and Brisma’s pace on the width was stretching Pitt’s backline, especially on the right side.
The Panthers’ scrambling defenders, and keeper, Ammann, held strong though.
“Arie came up big. There were several other guys too,” Vidovich added. “They were all over the place. Chest on the ball. Head on the ball. Getting bodies in the way. That’s what you have to do to win games. I am happy to see those plays as well. And yes, Arie did come up big — what can I say.”
Ammann made another couple key saves, and after Vidovich used his first subs in the 75th minute to give Kizza and Petkovic, two of his key attacking pieces, a rest. Only a few minutes later, Kizza and Petkovic came right back on.
From there, it was Pitt, with the home crowd urging them on, who created a few moments in the final third, but neither team would be able to score through the remainder of regulation and forced overtime.
fans here chanting 'Let's go Pitt' on free kick chance..
— John Krysinsky (@PghSoccerScribe) November 10, 2019
Both teams had pushed each other, and after 90 minutes, they were looking at the prospects of another 30 minutes of play in overtime.
What was Vidovich’s message to his players prior to the overtime period?
“Several things,” Vidovich stated. “Mentally, we said, take a look around. It’s a packed house. You have great support. Give these people something. This a great time for life lessons — you never, ever quit.”
And then Vidovich added what his biggest concerns were.
“Tactically — wanted to make sure we were covering number 2 (Pedegrosa), 7 (Brisma) and number 10 (David Loera), and not let them through. ”
Of course the best way the Panthers could keep the Wolfpack’s biggest threats from hurting them would be to come out attacking in the beginning of overtime, which is exactly what they did.
This time, the Panthers converted its opportunity on a sequence that began along the left end line — as Petkovic found Dexter straddling tight space along the line with a few defenders closing him down. The Brooklyn native navigated his way through it – and once again – connected with his pal Kizza for the game winner.
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) November 10, 2019
“Really, really happy that they could come together like that for a goal in a big game like that,” Vidovich said.
Now, Pitt turns its attention to Clemson, the top team in the ACC, who broke open a scoreless halftime affair en route to a 3-0 win against Notre Dame. The Panthers will travel to South Carolina for a Wednesday evening (6 p.m.) match against the Tigers.
With nothing to lose, and even with a potential at-large NCAA tournament birth in pretty clear view, Vidovich’s squad is ready to challenge for the next milestone — reaching the ACC Finals.
“Big game,” Vidovich said with a smile — as he savored this post-match moment in getting Pitt men’s soccer program one more step closer to the promised land. “It’s an opportunity to play in semifinals in the best conference in America. I’m excited for the guys and that they’re doing so well. Clemson, they’re dynamic, they’re really, really good team. We’ll be ready!”
Wednesday #ACCMSoccer semifinal game times:
Both matches air on @accnetwork.
— ACC Men's Soccer (@ACCMSoccer) November 11, 2019