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One Percent Better: Wonder goals provide icing on cake in Pitt’s compelling NCAA tournament win

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

The University of Pittsburgh men’s soccer head coach Jay Vidovich is constantly preaching to his team the importance of getting one percent better each day.

On Monday, for most of its NCAA Men’s Soccer Quarterfinal match, the Panthers’ stayed a step ahead of a difficult opponent, a well-organized and persistent Washington Huskies side which would not go away.

It wasn’t until very end of the match, when Pitt turned a tight, one-nil advantage into a commanding 3-0 lead with two remarkable goals emanating from the midfield line (and beyond), could the Panthers’ breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate a remarkable accomplishment of clinching the first-ever NCAA’s College Cup appearance with a couple emphatic exclamation points.

FINAL: Pitt 3, Washington 0

Make no mistake, Vidovich’s squad dictated terms for long stretches of the match, and when they needed to scrap and defend, they showed resiliency both as a unit and with numerous valiant individual plays in big moments.

“Tremendous effort by the guys today,” Pitt’s head coach Jay Vidovich said. “We fought when we had to fight and we found the back of the net and a way to get a result. I am very proud of them and I think we did a great job of taking our opportunities controlling the match and managing it and with exceptional goals. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to compete in the semifinal.”

Years from now, most observers may look back at the 3-0 score and not realize that this match was one the most compelling in this year’s NCAA tournament and maybe more importantly, one that defines this remarkable Pitt men’s soccer team and the edge that they carry every time they step foot on the pitch.

Holding the edge

The teams played to scoreless tie through the first 45 minutes, with each side generating a chance that found the woodwork.

In the 27th minute, during a stretch of play when Pitt was seemingly in control, dominating possession and playing on the front foot, midfielder Veljko Petkovic with room to shoot from the top of the box, careened his shot off the bar.

That would be Pitt’s best chance in a half where they outshot the Huskies, 6-1 (3-0 on target).

Still, the Panthers had to overcome a few hiccups, namely fouls and clearances in and around the final third which led to a few dangerous moments as UW pushed forward on counter chances. Pitt remained confident in defending as a unit, and goalkeeper Nico Campuzano was poised and in control every time the Huskies sent high ball after high ball his way.

Pitt’s keeper was called to come off his line many times throughout the match.

The most precarious moment in the match for the Panthers, who were 15-0 when scoring the game’s first goal, but 0-3 when conceding first, came when Washington’s Noah Sailor managed to steer a double-headed ball that banged off the crossbar.

The Huskies started the second half trying to get on the front foot, including a setting up a free kick and ensuing corner kick in the 46th minute.

Eventually, Pitt would regain its hold on the match by playing its game. Calmly building out possession from the back, with confidence, despite UW’s best efforts to rattle them. The Panthers holding midfielders, Jackson Walti and Filip Mirkovic were exceptional in connecting the dots, as were Pitt’s wide players — both on the right side (outside back Jasper Loeffelsend and winger Bertin Jacquesson) and on the left (Raphael Crivello and Alexander Dexter) — with stretching out the Huskies to create more room to extend possessions. Dexter and Jacquesson also were dynamic enough to made a few darting efforts to create havoc from the edges and in  the box.

Even when Washington was trying to turn the match in its favor, Pitt stayed in control of the match for longer stretches and forced the Huskies to spend more time defending.

The Dynamic Duo

Eventually, Pitt’s efforts would pay dividends in the 52nd minute, when ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year Loeffelsend had time and room to deliver a pinpoint cross into the box for Pitt’s leading scorer, attacking midfielder Valentin Noel, who slipped into the right spot in the middle of the UW back line.

The sophomore from France redirected his header into the back of the net to give the Panthers the 1-0 lead.

It was a goal that spoke volumes about Pitt’s ability to execute in the final third with precise passing and fantastic finishing. The goal started with excellent bout of possession, as the Panthers had the Huskies on its heels defending, getting what appeared to be proper numbers behind the ball. Pitt often likes to carry the ball through the middle of the field, with plenty of confidence in its central midfielders, namely Veljko Petkovic along with Mirkovic and Walti to suck in the defenders. This allowed for a quick switch over to the right side for Loeffelsend.

The graduate student from Germany then did what he’s been doing so well since he arrived at Pitt last summer: deliver a pinpoint ball into the perfect spot, in the gap between two Huskies defenders, paving the way for the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year to find the seam, then deliver the finish for his 14th goal of the season.

In tight match, it was fitting that Pitt’s top assist man would feed its best scorer to give them a critical one-goal lead.  

While this Pitt team has many players who have contributed to the attack during their unprecedented season, the dynamic duo of Loeffelsend and Noel have delivered time and time again, elevating their team with dynamic play on both ends, in service and in finishing, even in the tightest spots. 

When their dynamic duo is clicking, the Panthers are very hard to shut down.  

Poise Under Pressure

The Panthers rode some additional momentum after the goal, but Washington persevered.

They even brought on a few subs to help maintain a high level of energy on the width and at the top of the attack, with Luke Mort, Matt Bailey and Luke Peperak rotating into the mix

The Huskies would begin to mount more pressure, eventually turning the tables of the match to force Pitt’s formation into a defensive mode.   The Panthers began absorbing more crosses and with every foul or clearance in the final third, giving way to another UW corner, free kick or long throw attempt into the goal box.

This is what concerned Vidovich heading into the match. UW is the type of team that likes to create havoc in the box.

“They were throwing the kitchen sink at us,” Vidovich added. “Hats off to Washington. They always find ways to win. They make it very difficult to play. They’re very committed to making a scramble in the box, and finding opportunities. I thought our guys were exceptional. They handled those difficult times. Our goalkeeper, our defenders getting blocks and headers.”

Again, Campuzano remained poised, coming off his line numerous times to win balls in the air and deny shot opportunities for the Huskies, like this sequence in the 66th minute.

As the match came down to the final moments, Pitt remained clinging to a 1-0 lead,

Campuzano then made his biggest save of the match, extending his arm to get just enough of the ball to deny UW’s MAC Hermann Award candidate Dylan Tevas’ short range shot from the left corner edge of the six-yard box.

Wonder Goals! 

Pitt then saved something special for an unforgettable to finish.

As the match reached the 89th minute, with the game hanging in the balance, UW’s following corner kick was played into the center of the box where the well fortified Panthers denied the Huskies any chance to get a shot away. In fact, following Pitt’s clearance, the ball made its way to Jacquesson.

Jacquesson was off the races after a solid first touch. The Panthers’ forward noticed that UW’s keeper Sam Fowler, who came up as an extra attacker for the corner kick, was on his high horse retreating, trying to get back to the unattended goal.

The freshman from France would not be denied, as he passed the midfield line, he sent a perfectly placed long ball forward, with enough pace and accuracy to bounce into the open net, well ahead of Fowler and the next closest Huskies defender, to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead.

Lightning would strike twice.

Petkovic, who missed a golden chance in the first half when hitting the woodwork, redeemed himself with a wonder goal of his own less than a minute later.

After the restart, UW’s effort to get forward stalled into a wall of Pitt pressure, Petkovic noticed that Fowler had come off his line, the midfielder from Serbia blasted a left-footed, long and looping ball into the goal from the center circle area.

It was a perfectly placed ball, sailing over the extended arms of Fowler to give Pitt an icing on the cake goal that set off a celebration in the 90th minute.

College Cup Awaits

The Pitt men’s soccer team finally reached the College Cup — a first in program history — in Jay Vidovich’s sixth year at the helm of the program.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround, but for the Panthers, the work is not done yet.

“The further you go, the pressure is greater. The pain is greater. The margin for mistakes is greater,” Vidovich said. “And the rewards are greater.”

They’ve made it this far playing with an edge.

They do it with a precise and a dynamic attack.

They have shown remarkable poise under pressure.

And a couple wonder goals provided the icing on the cake.

On this day, Pitt’s student-athlete soccer players made their coach proud.

They were once again one percent better.

Next up for the Panthers, they’ll meet the only other seeded team remaining in the NCAA Tournament, Big Ten champions Indiana on Friday, May 14, at 8:30 p.m. Ito be televised on ESPN U).

“We’re close to where we want to be. It’s been difficult, but we’re closer,” Vidovich added.

“But we’re focused. We’ll carry a business-like approach. They’re excited. They had to earn that win and they feel pretty good. But, they’re already preparing and focusing on the semifinal and hopefully the final — in playing a couple games over several days.”

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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