The fall college soccer season was hardly recognizable in 2020.
Across the country, all NCAA Division II and III soccer was mostly shut down, while only selected conferences played at the Division I level. The most prominent, of course, being the ACC.
Here in Pittsburgh, Duquesne and Robert Morris didn’t play, while Point Park and Carlow (in the NAIA) did play, but both Pitt men’s and women’s programs completed ACC regular season play (**note** RMU men hired new Men’s coach, Jason O’Keefe on Monday)
Yet, in the midst of an unprecedented time, during this pandemic we’re currently dealing with, Pitt men’s soccer program managed to do what it’s been doing since Jay Vidovich arrived on Cardiac Hill.
The veteran coach, in his fifth season at Pitt has moved the program forward each year.
In his first few years, as he started to build from the ground up, bringing in some high-level recruits, he brought instant credibility and respectability.
The next couple of years which followed, the program methodically started to elevate in status and build on different successive milestones such as winning an ACC tournament game in 2018, then hosted both ACC tournament and NCAA tournament games (both wins) in 2019. The Panthers’ made their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1967.
Suddenly, expectations during the past offseason continued to mount.
Heading into the season, Vidovich was optimistic, but still had no idea what to expect.
Even the news that Edward Kizza, the program’s leading scorer from the past three years, no longer with the team nor enrolled at the University, would not derail the program.
The Panthers became the top scoring team in the nation in 2020, as they found a way to a perfect, albeit shortened, fall regular season as they rose to the very top of the United Soccer Coaches rankings for the first time in program history and became the top seed in the ACC Championship tournament.
Pitt won four of its five regular season matches on the road, showing lots of poise in beating Notre Dame, Syracuse, when pushed against Virginia on October 16, knowing that a win would catapult them to a number one ranking and dominating Louisville.
They also managed to stay the course, even when they had to shut things down due to COVID-19 positive cases around the team just as they started to hit their stride, gaining the top national ranking status.
The Panthers were in quarantine, but were able to return to play in the ACC tournament, with a 5-0 record, as the top seed.
“But we did our best. Zoom calls, we got organized, guys stayed ambitious,” Vidovich said. “And the thought was we weren’t even sure we were going to do it. If we would put up a good fight, the guys said it would be worth it. They really wanted a chance to compete.”=
Pitt would handle its business on its side of the tournament bracket, defeating Duke, 2-1, in the quarterfinal on November 15, then Notre Dame, 3-1, on Wednesday, November 18, to reach its first-ever ACC Championship game.
Breaking Down Pitt’s First-Ever Appearance in an ACC Championship Final
Playing its third game in seven days, Pitt would have to bring its A-game.
In previous games, Pitt got away with playing sloppy out of the back and making some mistakes at times against Notre Dame, thanks primarily to goalkeeper Nico Campuzano’s splendid saves and its opportunistic and efficient transition attack in the final third that kept its opponents on their heels. Against the Irish, they built a strong enough lead that covered for some scattered midfield play and going into a scrambling defensive mode late in the game, eventually surrendering a late goal to deny a chance to earn its first shutout of the season.
Imagine that, a top-ranked team in the nation without a single shutout?
Still, after a perfect 7-0 start, the Panthers left some soccer observors with a few glaring question marks heading into the final:
- Considering they hadn’t posted a clean sheet in seven games, How good were they defensively?
- Could they continue to win against top-caliber teams when giving balls away out of the back and in the midfield?
- Were they deep enough and what would squad rotation look like through a three-game in seven day tournament?
In facing Clemson in the ACC Championship on Sunday, these questions were put to a stern test as the Panthers never could get on the front foot.
“The things we were good at this year, cost us today,” Vidovich said after the match via Zoom call with a few members of the Pittsburgh media.
“We were lacking both offensively and defensively,” Vidovich added.
The Panthers were without a key regular starter, Jasper Löeffelsend, who was injured late in the win vs Notre Dame on Wednesday. As Mark Goodman properly pointed out in his pre-match scouting report, Pitt had a challenge in trying to contain Clemson’s speedy and athletic attacking wingers, primarily Kimarni Smith, who came into the match as the nation’s leading scorer with eight goals.
Löeffelsend’s replacement, Anass Amrani did his best to keep up with Smith, but there were times where the sophomore making his first start of the season, was overmatched. Heading into the match, Anass made two appearances, playing a total of 28 minutes.
Despite this match-up issue, where Pitt really struggled though in this match was with its inability to sustain more possession through the midfield and sloppy giveaways.
Its deeper midfielders, whether it was Jackson Waltri and Filip Morkovic were under constant pressure from Clemson’s high pressing attackers, and were regularly struggling to connect passes to the attacking midfielders Veljko Petkovic and Valentin Noel as well as using the space and width to get the ball to wingers Bertin Jacquesson and Alexander Dexter. Neither fullback, Anass or Raphael Crivello were instrumental either in pushing the attack forward, as they were spending much time tucking in and defending. Löeffelsend, in particular, had been instrumental in delivering key passes and a strong presence on the right flank leading to six assists his past six matches, so his absence was noticeable.
With an errant ball emanating from goalkeeper Nico Campuzano in the 13th minute, the Panthers couldn’t recover as Clemson did to Pitt what Pitt’s done to so many other teams this season. They connected a couple passes quickly, then gave one of its forwards a great opportunity to deliver a quick, redirected strike into the back of the net.
13’ || MOHA STRIKES AND CLEMSON LEADS!
— Clemson Men's Soccer (@ClemsonMSoccer) November 22, 2020
As Vidovich said, the things they’ve been so good at in the 2020 season, cost them on Sunday.
Even for the remainder of the first half, they continued to play tentative and couldn’t manage to get much past the midfield. Clemson owned most of the possession and continued to take away Pitt’s box midfielders ability to connect with each other. While Jacquesson carried the ball deepest into the final third for Pitt in the first half, he didn’t have any support and his partner on the other side, Alexander Dexter wasn’t getting anywhere near the amount of touches he usually sees.
There were a couple opportunities. One came from hard, low and accurate Jacquesson cross that nearly made a connection with Petkovic at the far post, but the timing of the run was just off and a Clemson defender was with him step-for-step.
“We could have put away a couple goals,” Vidovich said. “We put that ball in good spots if somebody was in the right post to put it away.
From the 26th minute through the end of the half, Pitt didn’t even generate a single shot on frame. In total, they had just three first half shots, with two on target.
Right after the half, Walti and Noel seized on their first opportunity to strike in the second half.
Sure enough, a perfectly played ball over the top from Walti connected with the deft first-touch of Noel just as the sophomore made a well-timed run behind and into an opening of Clemson’s back line. Noel’s technical mastery in the box to evade Clemson’s keeper George Marks and deliver a clinical finish was a reminder how dangerous this team could be in a moment’s notice.
After getting the equalizer, Pitt finally started to play to one of it’s primary strengths — taking good care of the ball. Instead of moving forward quickly in transition, they became more patient. It sure felt like the momentum swung back in their favor.
In the 57th minute, after a nice bout of possession through the back and the midfield, the Panthers found an opening on left side to catch Alexander Dexter who found room to get behind Clemson back line into the left side of the attacking third, forcing the Tigers to scramble to deny a shot chance.
This was one of the few times Pitt went to Dexter, one of their primary attacking threats, on the day.
They really needed to continue to do that — keep the ball and catch Clemson’s back line off guard again. Unfortunately, they had to work and push a little harder for another goal.
Three minutes later, Bertin Jacquesson who had more time of the ball in the match than Dexter, made a nice run to the end line, but his cross attempt was deflected for a corner, which would be cleared away.
A few moments later, Pitt started to look shaky again in the back. This time, Crivello played a ball back to Campuzano and it was nearly swiped away by Smith who was pressing high. Campuzano reacted quickly and smothered the ball.
Pitt quickly transitioned forward, ending with a cross from the left side that connected with Jacquesson, who’s header on frame was easily collected by Marks.
Things were starting to open up. Normally this would favor Pitt, but not on this day and not against Clemson.
Clemson continued to press. And Pitt continued to look shaky in playing it out of the back. Another poor giveaway out of the back led to an absolutely golden chance for Clemson’s Phillip Mayaka to give the Tigers the lead back. Mayaka had a clear opening and plenty of room — but pulled his shot right of goal.
Pitt couldn’t keep living dangerously.
Sure enough, a lazy throw-in in the attacking third led to another giveaway to Clemson in the 71st minute. This time the ball went to Grayson Barber, who’d been battling hard but chirping the loudest at the officials for much of what was a physical match. Barber made a run down the left flank. Pitt didn’t do enough to slow down or close him down, giving Barber plenty of room to stop, switch the ball to his right foot, then send a well-placed ball into the middle of the box for James Brighton, who wasn’t marked close enough, standing in the middle of the box between Pitt’s center back pairing of Ordonez and Washington. Brighton banged home a header past Campuzano, to give Clemson the decisive goal.
Clemson continued to bring enough pressure, which limited Pitt’s opportunities to really stay on the front foot.
Pitt’s only chances to level came from Petkovic free kicks. The first, in the 78th minute, went straight on to goal. toward the upper corner, but it was pretty easy one for Marks to handle.
Then, frustration got the best of one Panther — Anass Amrani.
With Clemson pushing forward again in the 87th minute, Amrani and Smith got tangled up off the ball — and Amrani smacked Smith in the face. After the whistle blew, the officiating crew went to review the replay of the altercation, and evidently they saw enough to send Amrani packing. The red card booking with three minutes and thirty-three second remaining in the match.
The clock would run out, leaving the Clemson players and coaches to celebrate its first ACC Championship win since 2011, while Pitt’s players and coaching staff left to swallow a bitter taste of defeat.
“Our legs ran out,” Vidovich said after the match. “Our ideas ran out there at the end.”
Vidovich had brought this soccer program so far to this point.
But they still have a way to go before they can climb the mountain completely. They’ll have some time over the next month to recover, and most likely they’ll get back to training after the New Year, then gear up for an unprecedented spring season in which they can start to focus on qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
For now, Vidovich is asking his players to “feel the pain” of the Championship game loss, and use it as a motivational tool to keep taking this program to new heights.
They’ve come this far now — and there’s still plenty to do.
“Embrace it and know what kind of work has to be done if we want to be back here to lift the trophy.”