Pitt men’s soccer team will get another chance to face the Clemson Tigers, who beat them in the ACC Men’s Soccer Tournament final back in November.
The schools will now meet on Saturday in the ACC’s NCAA Tournament Automatic Qualifying match (7 p.m. kickoff).
As both programs continued to stay ahead of the competition in the ACC by winning their respective divisions this Spring. the Panthers will now face a Clemson squad that may not be as dangerous as they were in the Fall.
Still, the Tigers are a very good team and cannot be underestimated, especially as they’ll be playing at home.
Notably, Grayson Barber, Philip Mayaka and Kimarni Smith all moved on from Clemson’s program following the conclusion of the fall season. Smith was taken No. 3 overall in the 2021 MLS Superdraft, while Mayaka was chosen immediately after him at No. 4. Barber signed a Homegrown Player contract with Sporting KC.
Each played a key role in unleashing damage to the Panthers in the ACC Tournament final in November.
In addition, Pitt played shorthanded in that match, as Jasper Loeffelsend was injured.
The explosive outside back from Germany was recently voted as ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year and among the leaders in the nation in assists. Löeffelsend owns seven assists this season, which is tied for first in the ACC and fifth in the nation. His total of seven assists currently is tied for ninth most in a single season in program history.
In November, Pitt had a challenge in trying to contain Clemson’s speedy and athletic attacking wingers, primarily Smith, who entered the final 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 when the sophomore, making his first start of the season, was overmatched. Heading into that match, Anass made two appearances, playing a total of 28 minutes.
Despite this, where Pitt really struggled vs Clemson the first time around was its inability to sustain more possession from the back and through the midfield, with play that led to numerous sloppy giveaways.
“The things we were good at this year, cost us today,” Vidovich said after that match.
“We were lacking both offensively and defensively.”
Pitt’s holding midfielders, 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, was instrumental in the Fall and again in the Spring, in getting the attack forward quickly and efficiently, so his absence in the first Clemson match 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
Clemson’s second goal came right after failed Pitt opportunity on a counter, as Barber made an impressive run down the left side, then sent a cross into the box for Smith, who buried his shot to give the Tigers the goal that proved to be the difference.
This time around, don’t expect Pitt to change its approach, its lineup or tactics too much. They’ve been playing very well, culminating with a dominant 5-0 win vs Virginia last Thursday to clinch the Coastal Division
With Loeffelsend back in the lineup, having learned from experience of playing Clemson previously and as the team has continued to build on a budding chemistry since late last summer, Pitt will look to push the tempo and pounce on Clemson’s mistakes. Remarkably, Pitt entered the previous match with Clemson without posting a single shutout in the Fall season, despite holding the top-ranking. In the Spring, they’ve tightened things up a bit more, played better defensively, posting four shutouts.
Pitt’s primary starting lineup for the bulk of this remarkable season should be intact on Saturday, and should look something like this.
Typically, Pitt’s head coach Jay Vidovich will rotate his wingers/forwards, using local products Luke Peperak (who scored his first goal vs UVA last week) and Luke Mort as part of the attacking rotation and to keep high level of energy for Pitt’s pressing efforts. When he does this, he also counts on Noel’s versatility to drop into a deeper midfield spot. There are numerous other options off the bench. In the central midfield, he has seniors Seto Sena and Matt Bailey along with junior Rodrigo Almeida, who could step into midfield spots, while Brandon Clagette, a freshman, who stepped up admirably when Loeffelsend was sidelined in the Duquesne match at the start of the spring.
Vidovich mentioned that he’s elated that this team and many players mentioned in the previous paragraph who dealt with injuries or limited playing time in the Fall have prospered and benefited from the extended season (or as he called it: 21st Century schedule model), playing competitive games and having training sessions throughout the academic year.
There will be times when Pitt’s press will look to disrupt Clemson, and when they do, they must capitalize on those opportunities.
With All-ACC Second Teamer Oskar Agren leading Clemson’s defensive corps and goalkeeper George Marks a solid presence in net, the Tigers, with six clean sheets this season, won’t be easy to break-down.
While Pitt cruises into this match on a five-game winning streak, Clemson have been without a win since a 3-2 win at Boston College on March 27. Since then, they drew against top 5 Wake Forest, then lost at Louisville, 2-1, in a match that didn’t have any bearing on their place in the Atlantic Division standings.
The Tigers will want to get forward too. They love to push the pace and take a lot of shot attempts (14.88 shots per game and 6.35 shots on goal per game, both of which lead the conference). Leading the Tiger attack is Callum Johnson, who has four goals, four assists and a .448 shot on goal percentage this year. James Brighton is second on the team in total goals with five and leads the team with 36 shots and has tallied 17 shots on goal.
Things could be open-ended and that could lead to a very entertaining game. The team which maintains its composure and can minimize its mistakes will come out on top.
Often times, maintaining composure comes down to how well the central midfield plays and dictates tempo. Walti and Mirkovic, a sophomore and freshman holding mids, have grown quite a bit since that experience against Clemson in the Fall. They were in complete command and had lots of confidence playing the ball out of the back against Virginia last Thursday. If they can play with more patience when Pitt is in possession than they did the first time around vs Clemson, the Panthers should hold the edge this time around.
The Panthers have also been resilient, showing they can win tight matches on the road, including three road overtime wins this season.
After the first loss to Clemson, Vidovich asked his team to “feel the pain” of the Championship game loss, and use it as a motivational tool to keep taking this program to new heights.
With the way they’ve played this Spring, they’re in a great position to pull off another road win to secure a top seed in the NCAA tournament on Saturday night.
If you still wanted a top-notch scouting report of Clemson, you can always still refer to Mark Goodman’s piece prior to the match in November as a reference point.