Heading into the season, Pitt men’s soccer program was riding a huge wave of accolades and momentum which provided plenty of reason for optimism that they’ll be in position to return as one of the ACC’s top teams and make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Under the direction of Jay Vidovich, the program has reached a point where the expectations are very high, especially with 10 of 11 starters back along with much of its roster from its 2020-21 squad that lost in the National Semifinal.
The start to the 2021 fall campaign hasn’t exactly been kind to the Panthers, as a pair of short road trips against regional MAC rivals, West Virginia and Akron, resulted in similar 2-1 losses.
Each loss followed a similar script.
“We had lapses,” Vidovich conceded this week. “We were rushing, and left things exposed defensively. We did four or five things right, but we made mistakes in some key moments.”
Feeding off the energy from strong home crowds, Akron and West Virginia capitalized early in the match to pull ahead with early goals that took advantage of Pitt’s defensive miscues.
The Panthers responded in both matches with early second half goals emanating from crosses and finishes on the back post to pull even.
At each point when Pitt scored the equalizer, they appeared to flip the table on each match.
And in each match, as they pushed for the go-ahead goal, they allowed both WVU and Akron to regain momentum and capitalize with game winning goals in the final 20 minutes of each match.
Some of the positives that Vidovich said that he’ll pull from these losses and among the lessons for his team is that they cannot take any opponent lightly and can’t afford to fall behind early in matches. Despite the losses, these difficult road games early in the season can harden his already experienced squad’s resolve, paying dividends later in the season when they’ll face adversity again when the pressure builds.
“We got our group into a few hostile environments, that part is done,” Vidovich said. “We came back and battled each time to get the equalizer, but the lesson is that we can’t concede early goals. Hopefully this experience will help us.”
Despite the numerous returning starters, the Panthers have used some different personnel in its lineups in each game this season.
Greensburg’s Luke Mort has started three matches, while Bertin Jacquesson, a regular starter last season, has only started one match. Despite this, there hasn’t been much change in Pitt’s rotation of attackers and midfielders.
Vidovich reiterated that there’s been a combination of injuries, intense competition for starting spots and some priority to having some squad rotation that have gone into his lineup selections thus far this season.
One position that the Panthers are still trying to figlure out is the center back spot left vacant with the graduation of Bryce Washington, who started every game for Pitt last season. In the opener against Duquesne, Mohammad Abualnadi, a transfer from Notre Dame, got the start, while senior Sito Sena, who played mostly at holding midfield prior to this season, started at WVU.
Vidovich has since rotated starts between Sena and Abualnadi, as Arturo Ordonez remains the regular starter at the other CB spot.
The veteran coach said that he expects both players to continue to battle for playing time.
“We’ll see who’s ready each game to wear the jersey,” Vidovich said. “Bottom line is we want to win games, and put the best possible lineup on the field.”
Here’s a look at Pitt’s line-up with starters and those in the squad’s playing rotation through the first four matches.
On Friday, Pitt will be facing a tough opening test when North Carolina visits Ambrose Urbanic Field.
It was the Tar Heels who provided Pitt with one of its few setbacks during the 2020-21 season, as they controlled the match to beat the Panthers 3-0 in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels were also the other ACC school that made it to the College Cup, along with Pitt in May. Both schools came up short in the National Semifinals, as Pitt lost 1-0 to Indiana, while UNC dropped a tough, 1-0 match to the eventual national champions, Marshall.
“They’re a quality program. Quality student-athletes. They’re well-organized. They’ve won championships. They’ll maintain possession and they don’t concede,” Vidovich said, lauding an opposing program he’s very familiar with not only from his time coaching at Pitt, but 20 years at Wake Forest.
Vidovich is expecting to have a full roster selection as he said there are no significant injuries to report.
Look for our match preview to post Friday along with live coverage from Ambrose Urbanic Field. The match will kickoff at 7 p.m.