As the Pitt Panthers advance to the semi-finals of the ACC tournament, they have to be content with their accomplishments to date; a 9-6-1 record, a big ACC tournament win over NC State, and a very good chance of advancing to the NCAA College Cup.
I say that because, to be honest, all signs point to this game tonight (Wednesday, 6pm, ACC Network and streaming on ESPN+) being the end of the road for Jay Vidovich’s boys in ACC play.
Because Clemson have been an absolute wrecking ball in college soccer this season.
Tigers Head Coach Mike Noonan‘s team has been an absolute buzzsaw this season, with a 15-1-1 overall record and a 6-1-1 record in conference play. That’s pretty mind-boggling. But the real numbers that stand out for Clemson is their off-the-charts goal scoring numbers in 2019. The Tigers have 63 Goals For on the season, or 3.7 goals scored per game. That’s a rate nearly * twice * as high as the second-highest scoring team in the ACC, Wake Forest.
It’s all offense, all the time for Clemson, who are currently the #1 ranked team in NCAA men’s soccer according to the United Soccer Coaches poll, and the #4 team according to RPI. The Tigers were held goalless only once all season – a 0-0 draw against Virginia Tech. They regularly humiliate their opponents by giant margins of victory. They’ve put four or more goals past their opponents six times this year. I could go on.
OK I will. Their two strikers, South Carolina native Robbie Robinson and UK import Kimarni Smith lead the ACC in goals scored with an eye-popping 15 and 13 goals each, respectively. No other team in the ACC has more than one player in the top 10. Midfielders Tanner Dietrich (9), Grayson Barber (8), and Phillip Mayaka (8) top the league in assists. Smith was ranked by Top Drawer Soccer as the #12 best prospect in all of NCAA men’s soccer. Robinson was ranked at #57, but I imagine that in the season-ending poll he’ll be ranked a lot higher.
Can they defend? Sure! They have the third-best defense in the league. But with ludicrous goal-scoring like Clemson gets, honestly, who cares if they can defend?
Against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals, Clemson had the bulk of possession in the first half and peppered the goal with shots, but were stonewalled. They kept it up, and eventually put three past the Fightin’ Irish to take the match handily. Here’s how they lined up to start the match.
Smith and Barber swapped sides regularly, and Barber was equally comfortable bending in dangerous crosses or trying to put his man on the dribble and taking the shot – he had a filthy shot in the first half which bounced off the underside of the crossbar and out. I called out Smith and Robinson for leading the ACC in goals, but don’t sleep on Grayson Barber, as the kid has 9 goals this season himself. Clemson often came down the right side with Dietrich trying to combine with another mid or forward for the final pass into the box, or with a ball right into the mixer for one of two big beefy freshmen posted up in front of the net; that would be 6 foot 1, 195 pound James Brighton or 6 foot 3, 188 pound Mohamed Seye.
One additional note on Clemson – the team’s leading scorer and potential Mac Hermann trophy winner Robbie Robinson did not dress for the Notre Dame match, having picked up an injury in training. It is possible he will play against Pitt, but I think unlikely – why rush a player back for an ACC tournament game when he can be properly rested and healed in time for the NCAA College Cup? That said, as I mentioned before, Clemson has *all the weapons*, with Smith and Brighton and Barber and Dietrich and Mayaka and and and… they could sell Robinson to Atletico Madrid tomorrow and still have the tools in their toolbox to pound an opponent relentlessly into submission.
Clemson are technically proficient, they do not easily give the ball away, they are relentless in attack, they have speed, they are clever, and they come into this game riding a seven-game win streak.
Former USMNT standout Charlie Davies was doing commentary on the ACC TV broadcast, and he called them ‘the best team in the NCAA’. I think he’s probably right. If Pitt can beat them at their home field in South Carolina, it would be perhaps the greatest triumph of the season for a team that has already exceeded all expectations, and then some, in 2019.
Photo Credit: Clemson Athletic Dept via twitter