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Season Preview: Experienced, talented Panthers primed for another deep run

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

Pitt men’s soccer team, fresh off a record-breaking season which included a run to the College Cup and the National Semifinal game, are primed for another big season, as they bring back 10 of 11 starters from its unprecedented 2020-21 season.

The Panthers will begin the Fall 2021 season ranked third in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll.

In fact, the Panthers return a total of 20 players from last year’s squad which finished a school record 16-4 overall and 9-1 in ACC play. Pitt won its first ever Coastal Division title and earned the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament en-route to its first ever College Cup appearance.

The accolades were aplenty.

  • Pitt had a program best 14 ACC postseason awards, including Offensive Player of the Year (Valentin Noel), Defensive Player of the Year (Jasper Löeffelsend), Freshman of the Year (Bertin Jacquesson) and Coach of the Year (Jay Vidovich).
  • The Panthers produced their first All-Americans in school history in Noel and Löeffelsend.
  • Noel was named First Team All-America by United Soccer Coaches and College Soccer News, while Löeffelsend garnered Second Team All-America from both outlets.
  • In addition to total and conference wins, Pitt set new single-season school records in total points (142) and assists (44).
  • Pitt was ranked No. 1 in the country by the United Soccer Coaches Poll for the first time in program history Oct. 20, 2020. Men’s Soccer became the third Pitt athletics program in school history to be named No. 1 in its respective sports’ poll, joining football and men’s basketball.

Of the players who were seniors last season only one has departed, as Bryce Washington signed a homegrown contract with Atlanta United of Major League Soccer.

Thanks to the NCAA granting another year of eligibility to student-athletes who were enrolled in school during the 2020-21 school year, this means that forward/winger Alexander Dexter, goalkeeper Nico Campuzano, holding mid/defender Sito Sena and outside back Loeffelsend will return.

Essentially, the Panthers are going to run back this season with the same group that had the best season in the 67-year history of the program.

“Really excited to have some of these guys back. Like (Alexander) Dexter, and Nico (Campuzano) and Jasper (Loeffelsend). They profited tremendously from having the experience with the group.  I hope they can maximize their opportunities if they can have another positive year,” Pitt’s head coach Jay Vidovich said. “They can grow their game individually and help us get to a trophy here and gets them closer to a career in the game.”

With 10 starters returning, you could look at last season’s depth chart and starting line-ups, and have a good idea what the team’s starting eleven will look like, with most players roles appearing to be the same.

While Ordonez and Campuzano will lead the team out of the back, Loeffelsend and Crivello help add a dimesion on the width both in getting forward, but also each have the ability to recover and are solid defenders.

Keeping everything together and the group connected are the two holding midfielders, Jackson Walti, who has often worn the captain’s armband last season and Filip Mirkovic, who played at such a high level in the NCAA tournament that he was named to the All-College Cup team.

Noel and Petkovic will work with Dexter and Bertin Jacquesson as a line of attackers and forwards who will look to capitalize on scoring opportunities.

“My role hasn’t changed that much. The only thing I want to do more, is produce for the team,” Dexter said.

Dexter, who appeared in 20 games, starting in 19 of them in 2020-21, and was seventh in the ACC and third on the team with seven goals told Pittsburgh Soccer Now earlier this week he believes this team will be stronger with another year of experience under its belt.

“We’re going to have a much stronger bench. We’re going to have to look to punish teams even more.  The role (for me) hasn’t changed much. We still have the same structure.  Individual’s jobs are pretty much the same. For me, look to produce more.”

Coming off the bench last year, Vidovich used a number of players, but it was two players from the Pittsburgh region, Luke Mort and Luke Peperak, who became part of Pitt’s rotation, as they regularly jumped into the wide, forward or attacking midfield spots.

Two Lukes: Local standouts grow into key roles with Pitt

The lone question about the starting line-up will be, who will step in to the center back position left void with Washington’s departure.

Dexter was spot on when he said this team will have more depth.

Eight new players have joined the Panthers in 2021, including five freshmen, two juniors and a graduate student. Transfer students Lucas Rosa and Mohammad Abualnadi join the squad after standout seasons at their former schools. Rosa was named NEC Player of the Year and College Soccer News Third Team All-America in 2019 after leading Saint Francis with 11 goals and two assists.

Abualnadi joins after helping Notre Dame earn a top-five ranking last season as a center back, and appears, with his experience, to be the leading candidate to fill the open center back position.

Junior Joe van der Sar adds depth to the goalkeeper position. van der Sar played for AFC Ajax’s highest youth division prior to Pitt.

Rounding out the newcomers are freshmen Guilherme Feitosa (Salvador, Brazil), Cade Hagan (Chicago, Ill.), Andrew Noel (Montclair, N.J.), Luis Sahmkow (Richardson, Texas) and Michael Sullivan (Tarentum, Pa.).

“We’re very fortunate, we have a new recruiting class.  They have a really good foundation in the game and experiences.  They’ve already helped us with the overall level of the team, so that’s been good,” Vidovich said after Tuesday’s training. “How they’re going to fit in, we really don’t know yet.  There’s so many in such a short season.  Today was our 10th practice.  It’s such an abbreviated season.  Some guys, they’re starting to push for minutes now. Some will have their time later in the season or next year.”

Valentin Noel will be looking to build off one of the best single-season performances in Pitt men’s soccer history a year ago.

The sophomore finished second in the nation in goals (14), third in points (30), 13th in goals per game (.74) and 23rd in points per game (1.58). The Niort, France, native scored eight goals and tallied two assists during the fall campaign and finished with six goals during the spring. He registered three multi-goal games in total last year. Noel earned a plethora of accolades, including United Soccer Coaches and College Soccer News First Team All-America, becoming the first First Team All-American in program history. He was also named United Soccer Coaches South All-Region First Team, ACC Offensive Player of the Year, All-ACC First Team and All-ACC Tournament Team. Noel was invited to the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy presentation in St. Louis, Mo., as a finalist for the MAC Hermann award, given to men’s and women’s soccer’s national player of the year.

Both Noel and Löeffelsend were named to College Soccer News’ Preseason All-America Team.

“So much fun playing with talented guys like Val, Veljko, It makes things a little bit easier,” Dexter added. “You like to have fun when playing — and it is with those guys out there.”

Coming off its massive success in the 2020-21 campaign, Pitt will have a target on its back as they enter the 2021 Fall season as the hot pick by ACC coaches to finish first in the Coastal Division and first overall in the ACC Coaches’ Preseason Poll.

Hearing from Vidovich and Dexter this week, it’s clear that this team is highly motivated as they’re still a bit stung by the disappointment of losing 1-0 to Indiana in the College Cup semifinal.

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

It was one of those cruel results that left them bitterly disappointed.

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

“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.”

Now, the Panthers take that lesson going into a new season.

They’re not taking anything for granted.

“We wanted to pick up where we left off. He (coach Vidovich) didn’t want a drop off. All summer we’ve been working on things we need to focus on. The guys put in the work over the summer.  Individually, we’re stronger, more intelligent and as a team, we’re more focused,” Dexter exclaimed and has been happy to spend more time with his teammates as COVID-19 restrictions have eased a bit. “It’s been a blast. We’ve been spending more time together. It’s been a really good preseason for us.  We’re all working really hard.  The level is really high. It’s higher than last year.  We’re ready to go.”

Immediately following the long season, the Panthers did need some time to recouperate, as Dexter acknowledged that he and his teammates took a bit of break from the physical grind for a few weeks before getting back to working and preparing for the quick turnaround to a new season.

Vidovich has always tried to create a professional environment and explained that his preseason routines are similiar to many of the things they do year-round, with a little bit more time spent together before the rigorous season gets underway.

“It’s pretty much the same thing throughout the year. We do a single session a day. Staff sessions start around 7, 7:30 a.m. Going through their preventitives, have breakfast, watch video, after watching video, they go back to preventitives then prepare for training,” Vidovich explained. “Usually practice is somewhere between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m.  Sometimes they’re hitting the gym, sometimes they’re in recovery, ice baths, things like that. Then it’s a team meal, then treatment and more recovery along with another video session and mental prep.”

Pitt’s preseason matches, hosting Robert Morris (a 4-0 win) and a road trip to Maryland (a 2-1 loss) provided Vidovich with plenty of opportunity for evaluation and opportunities to prepare his team for what to expect and help them get back into their gameday routines.

“We got to see some quality minutes there when we played Robert Morris. We had a good crowd. Happy to see people here. You know, for the first time in almost two years. That was fantastic,” Vidovich said. “Then we took the guys on a road trip to play Maryland. A storied program, lots of quality there. They asked a lot of questions of us. We asked a lot of questions of them. They won, 2-1, but it was a good exercise. We learned a lot about ourselves. Now it’s taking those lessons and working to improve.”

The Panthers will face a fairly tough out-of-conference schedule prior to juming into ACC play, as they’ll have some tough challenges including road games at West Virginia, Penn State and Akron.

“Our out of conference games are good. West Virginia, Penn State, Duquesne. They all have a different flavor to them that makes it exciting and a challenge for us. And hopefully it will get us ready for our end of the season performances. What we can expect? We going to try to be Pitt soccer. We’re going to try to press and get the ball back. We want to have the ball. We want to attack the goal quickly and efficiently. We want to do what we did in spells of it in our first two preseason games. We have to be more consistent. We have to be more disciplined to stay with our game plan. I imagine we’ll grow into that as the season goes on.”

The ACC schedule will be very tough, as it always is, as the Panthers look to first recapture the Coastal Division crown, as they’ll face an eight-game grind which begins against No. 4 North Carolina at Ambrose Urbanic Field on September 10.  UNC were the other ACC representative in the College Cup in May, losing in the semifinal to Marshall, who would go on to win the National Championship.

While Vidovich is hoping and leading the charge to transition to what he’s called a 21st century model college season which would permanently see a more spread out schedule in both the Fall and Spring, they’ll have to deal with returning to a shortened, mad-dash from August through November, with the postseason extending to early December if the Panthers can reach the College Cup again.

“I think going back to what it was after what we experienced is going to be very difficult. I think it’s diabolical for the players and probably for the fans as well. You think about it, fact was last year there was a lot of talk about catastrophic injuries, and now we have nine days to prepare for two matches in a week. It’s not what it should be. It’s not the way the game’s designed, especially this early in the season,” Vidovich stated.

“But we’re happy to be playing.”

And that’s one thing that’s indisputable.

This is a Pittsburgh soccer team that has all the ingredients to bring home a National Championship.

“We’re ready to go for it again,” Dexter said.

“This time, bring it home.”




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).

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