The good news for the #1 Pitt Panthers Men’s Soccer team heading into today’s 12 noon clash against Clemson is that the Tigers aren’t quite as ridiculously good as the team they fielded in 2019. Those Tigers beat Pitt 1-0 in the ACC Tournament Semifinal on a 44th minute goal from Mohamed Seye.
Clemson graduated a few important cogs from their 2019 squad that finished runners-up in the ACC Tournament and compiled an outstanding 18-2-2 overall. Striker Robbie Robinson, holding midfielder Tanner Dietrich, and center back Malik Mbaye all finished school and were drafted by MLS teams, and all played domestically this past year with MLS or USL clubs.
Clemson retained a number of top NCAA players for this years club who demonstrated that there isn’t much falloff from season to season in Mike Noonan’s program.
The man to watch on this team is probably Kimarni Smith. The senior forward from Nottingham, England is a wiry, quick striker who is equally comfortable driving down the right flank with the ball or splitting the defenders for a back-post run. He currently leads the NCAA with 8 goals. He’s really fast, but that’s not really exceptional on this Clemson team; everybody’s fast, especially Smith’s forward linesmates Grayson Barber and Mohamed Seye. Smith, however, is the most technically adept of the three – better with the ball at his feet, and better making and receiving passes.
In midfield, the Tigers often start Junior Luis Fernandez-Salvador, Clemson, SC native John Martin, and Spaniard Alvaro Gomez. Phillip Mayaka will play in the midfield too, but whether he’s a wing-midfielder or a forward is a matter of interpretation from game to game as to whether Clemson is in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3; they often line up one way on paper and play a little differently. The midfield is often asked to move the ball through quickly – receive and lope it over the top for the forwards – but just as often they make runs backward to the defenders for them to ping the long ball or the diagonal.
Clemson like to spread the field; they drag opponents out of position with runs and then sling around long, sharp ground passes into space. It’s often fast and frenetic, but it also looks to my eye a little sloppy sometimes: this isn’t the crispest team you’ll see, and Jay Vidovich’s Pitt team will likely be better than Clemson in both time of possession and passing accuracy. But they don’t need to connect every pass. They just need to minimize the impact of turnovers by only making them in the opposing half, and hurt you with the passes they do connect. More often than not this year, they’ve done both.
The other function of spreading the field is that the wings can create space for everyone else to roam and run. Clemson, like most modern football teams, use their fullbacks in attack as points of attack, but they can also make deep runs with them. Mayaka, Martin, or Charlie Ascensio often take that role. But really, the big question for Pitt in this match will be how well Pitt’s fullbacks, Jaspar Löeffelsend and Raphaël Crivello, can stop Smith and Seye.
If they can do that, in my humble opinion, they’ll be crowned ACC Champions and win their first *ever* post-season tournament in the program’s long 66-year history.
Image of Kimarni Smith c/o Clemson Athletic Department via twitter