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Analysis: Pitt’s College Cup loss to resilient Indiana offers tough lesson

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

Heading into its College Cup Semifinal match against Indiana University, the University of Pittsburgh’s men’s soccer team had plenty of confidence and belief that they could play their game, create more chances than the Hoosiers and take another improbable step forward to the National Championship game.

Sometimes though, soccer can be a cruel game.

One goal would be more than enough for the top defensive team in college soccer.  Indiana did what they seemingly do best, absorb pressure then grow better as the game evolved, eventually finding an opportune moment to turn the match in its favor, as Herbert Endeley seized the moment late in the match to deliver the game-winning strike to give the Hoosiers the 1-0 win.

FINAL: Indiana 1, Pitt 0

When asked after the match what Indiana did well, Pitt’s Head Coach Jay Vidovich gave a short answer, getting right to the point.

“They’re a team that’s very solid defensively. They kept numbers in front of them, and they counter-attacked.” Vidovich stated.

Pitt came out on the front foot 

Coming out with an unchanged starting eleven, Pitt took hold of the match in the early going.

As they would do for much of the night, they were able to connect passes through the midfield, the width to attacking wingers Alexander Dexter and Bertin Jacquesson and work their way into the final third.

The first shot of the match came within the first 90 seconds, when Veljko Petkovic drove a low, hard shot right at IU’s keeper Roman Celentano.

All night long, Pitt repeatedly knocked on the Hoosiers door but couldn’t finish off chances they created.

Even with the Panthers owning most of the ball, the Hoosiers showed their ability to get forward on the counter in the 7th minute and create danger, as Endelay’s ball into the box forced Jasper Loeffelsend into an awkward flick attempted clearance, but it led to a one-time shot attempt which Loeffelsend quickly positioned himself to block.

From that point forward, most of the first half belonged to Pitt, with an exception of a 10 to 12 minute stretch when Indiana started to selectively press Pitt effectively, but couldn’t capitalize on a few transition moments.

In the 26th minute, a nice build-up that began with Panthers’ midfield finding room to operate and get forward, then found freshman Bertin Jacquesson breaking down the right side.  After receiving the pass, Jacquesson made a nice move to get into the box, then delivered a ball into the goal box which caused Indiana to scramble, effectively, to clear the ball, as former Pitt defender Nyk Sessock made a clutch clearance.

Despite having more of the ball, Pitt played very patient as they were cautiously looking for the openings in the mostly impenetrable Indiana formation.

By the end of the first half, they had two more quality chances.

First came when the Balkans connection hooked up in the middle of the field, with holding midfielder Filip Mirkovic finding Petkovic, who split IU’s center backs to advance inside the box.

Petkovic just missed his opportunity, sailing his left-footed shot over bar.

Pitt’s leading goal scorer, Valentin Noel, was on the receiving end of a few crosses in the first half, but was well marked by IU’s back line.

Finally, in the 44th minute, Noel finally got in position to redirect a well-placed header on frame. Celentano made a terrific, quick reflexive diving save that kept the match scoreless heading into the half.

Halftime Adjustments

Heading into the halftime break, two of college soccer’s most successful coaches had plenty of optimism about their team’s chances.

And why not?

For the most part, each side was playing their game.  Pitt had controlled the time on the ball (NCAA doesn’t provide possession stats) and they doubled the Hoosiers in shot attempts and had the game’s only two shots on frame.

Indiana’s Todd Yeaghley knew that his side had weathered some pressure, but they remained confident and composed through it, as they had through most of the tournament. His team survived penalty kicks in the Big 10 title match vs Penn State and against St. Francis (NY) in the first round, then won close matches against Marquette and Seton Hall.

“Thought we managed them well. Thought our press middle of half. Have to take care of ball in transition.  Need to be better in those moments. Kept it tight. Overall in good place. Have to do more offensively.  Those transition moments, keep it in front half a little more.  Second balls in box. We can create problems. More service.  We’ll have to keep it lock tight in the back.”

Vidovich on the other hand wanted to see his team to tighten things up defensively and play a higher line.

“Would like the ball at our feet even more,” Vidovich also said. “We thought we could have them pushed back, and we’re trying to find the seams to find the spaces, because, they have a pretty strong bank of eight or nine players inside the 18. We wanted to try to move them. Stay patient and not get anxious on the ball.”

‘It would take one shot to win the game’

The second half started with Indiana taking cues from its coach.  When getting in transition, they were hoping to be more dangerous, instead of giving away passes and succumbing to Pitt’s ability to force even the best of teams into mistakes.

In the 46th minute, the Hoosiers leading scorer and MAC Hermann Trophy finalist, Dylan Bezarra got forward, then delivered IU’s first shot on target, forcing Pitt’s goalkeeper Nico Campuzano into a routine save.  A few minutes later, Endeley looked dangerous in getting to the end line to set up a corner opportunity.  Then Bezarra, again, found room on the edge of the box to send a bending shot from the left edge of the 18, toward the far right post side, but just missed.

Despite a few uneasy moments early in the second half, Pitt seized momentum again, by executing another well-orchestrated build-up that led to an opening for Mirkovic at the top of the box.

The freshman midfielder from Serbia hit a shot that hit the lower part of the crossbar, careened downward on the goal line then bounced out and back into play.

At the next stoppage in play, the official called for a video review, which confirmed that the ball never completely crossed the goal line.

Pitt’s continued to push and dictate tempo.

More crosses came, and more Indiana perseverance and solid defending came when under pressure.

Noel was surrounded by a few defenders on a cross in the 66th minute that was pretty accurate from Alexander Dexter.  When Pitt tried a quick short 1-2 between Petkovic and Jacquesson on another corner. Petkovic’s left footed in-swinging ball into danger right in the middle of goal box failed to find any Panther feet, as Celentano secured the  ball.

In the 70th minute, Pitt earned another corner (5th of match) as Walti made a clever move to get into the box.  The following in-swinging corner from Petkovic was well placed, connecting with Raphael Crivello.  The Pitt defender sent his header just wide left of the post.

Opportunities were there for Pitt, but they just couldn’t convert.

Vidovich turned to his bench for his regular rotation of wingers at this point, bringing back on Luke Mort and Matt Bailey for Jacquesson and Dexter.

The match would turn in the next sequence in the 77th and 78th minutes.

First, Pitt got forward quickly after an interception at midfield.  Petkovic moved into the final third rapidly — and he had a 3-on-2 transition opportunity as the Panthers advanced against Indiana’s center back pairing.  The center backs didn’t budge, staying patient and behind the ball. Petkovic had some room to either attack them or take a shot from around 20 to 22 distance mark — certainly within his range.  However, Petkovic opted to play the ball to Luke Mort who was in space on the right side.

The Greensburg Central Catholic alum and former Beadling SC standout took a touch, then blasted a shot that flew a couple feet over the right corner of a well-protected side of goal where Celentano was in position.  It would have been a phenomenal goal, as Mort had a tough angle and limited room to hit the back of the net.

Despite being under pressure for much of the match, Indiana remained poised and ready to strike when the opportunity would come.

That moment came as Indiana transitioned forward after that latest Pitt failed advance.

The ball came to Endeley on the right side.  The sophomore from Blaine, Minnesota saw an opening. Pitt’s left back Crivello was the first defender to the ball, and he took position to deny Endeley a move to his right, so the Indiana forward cut to his left, then surged ahead before Pitt’s Matt Bailey could cut him off.

As Endeley took a few quick touches, he then let his right foot do the work.

Here’s another look at Endeley’s goal.

“We’ve been working on a lot of finishing in practice,” Endeley said. “I knew that it could possibly take just one shot for us to win the game. I knew that. I was feeling that this could be the game. I just tried to split defenders and worked on the finishing we’d been working on in practice and all the small details. To me those added up today and helped us win the game.”

‘As game grew on we got little bit better. Always knew we’d have those isolation moments,” Yeaghley said. “I Felt that was going to be difference in game. We might lose little bit of possession.  Being dangerous in transition — I wanted to give our guys ability to do that.”

Pitt would have a little more than 10 minutes to find the equalizer.

They controlled play for the most part. There were numerous crosses, a few corners and a couple of shots from distance, but they could never break through against the well-fortified box filled with Indiana Hoosiers.

“They got a goal at a perfect time for them,” Vidovich reckoned. “If we make a mistake, it could be a second one for them and put a knife in us.  It was very hard to come back, as we didn’t have enough time. But right up to the end, we kept coming. Look at the corner kicks we had. The shots from distance.”

“I thought our guys fought through. They executed. The goals didn’t come,” Vidovich added.

“Some of the credit goes to Indiana. But, that’s the nature of our game. Sure felt like we dominated game. Sometimes team that dominates doesn’t always win,” Vidovich said.

“That’s a lesson for our guys.”

Yeaghley knew his team just passed its most difficult test in a tournament run filled with adversity.

“I commend Pitt. They’re an outstanding team. Jay Vidovich is a friend and a very special coach,” Yeaghley said. “We spent a lot of time getting ready for this game. The adaptability of this team is fantastic.  Their resiliency is phenomenal.”

While the loss provides another cruel lesson for Pitt’s players, it should only fuel this program to get back to this stage as they’ve continued to reach new heights in each of Vidovich’s six years at the helm.

There won’t be much time to recoup.  Playing in a College Cup in mid-May, the Panthers will have to be ready in just a few months to start all over again, with a roster that will have some new recruits, and only lose a few seniors.

As a program, they’re clearly in position to get right back to this stage.

“How proud of our guys and how they played and the effort that they put in. They knew what it meant to the school, to the program.  When we started training in August, we didn’t even know if we would have a season.  Thanks to the leadership of the ACC we had a season in the Fall.  We had an opportunity to grow and mature.  The long term effects for our team will be tremendous.”

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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