Heading into Friday night’s showdown with No. 3 North Carolina, Jay Vidovich had already accomplished an awful lot in his six-plus years at the helm of the Pitt men’s soccer program.
One thing that he hadn’t done at Pitt was beat North Carolina.
Coming off a difficult second road loss of the season and a week when the Panthers dropped in the United Soccer Coaches Poll from third to 15th, Vidovich’s squad was fueled by a packed house at Ambrose Urbanic Field en route to a dominant 4-0 win against the Tar Heels.
“It was a dream to see a crowd like this. That type of atmosphere is fantastic for college soccer,” Vidovich said after the match.
Coming off an impressive season which the Panthers won the ACC’s Coastal Division for the first time and reached the NCAA’s College Cup in May, they’ve become the hunted.
In road losses at West Virginia and Akron, early and late game lapses cost them in matches played before large, festive crowds.
Vidovich wasn’t happy with his team’s performances after those matches, particularly with his club’s inability to stay connected and keep its defensive shape in those road losses.
The veteran coach also knew his players would grow and learn from the early season losses and would not have any trouble getting ready for its ACC opener against a program they’ve never beaten.
In addition to becoming a team that is bringing out the best in its opponents, Pitt has also brought out the Pittsburgh soccer fans. Once again, Ambrose Urbanic Field was filled up to capacity, with not a single spot in the stands remaining open and a line of people along the railings in the stands and along the East side of the complex.
On Friday, the Panthers had the benefit of their home crowd and playing on their turf.
UNC’s Head Coach Carlos Somoano wanted his club to be the aggressor early in the match. They came out looking to press and force the Panthers into more mistakes.
Prior to the match, Vidovich told Pittsburgh Soccer Now that when it came to lineup selections, with a deep, experienced roster and lots of competition for spots in training, he would be intent on putting his best eleven on the pitch to start every match.
That’s why it may have been a slight surprise to some to see Rodrigo Almeida in the lineup, over Bertin Jacquesson on Friday.
Almeida has struggled in the past few years to get substantial playing time mostly due to injuries, while Jacquesson had been the primary starter on the right attacking wing spot.
Almeida made the most of his start.
And boy, did the Panthers make the most of their chances.
They showed patience in building things out of the back, navigating UNC’s high pressure. But once the Panthers get into the clear and beyond that early pressure, with center midfielder Jackson Waltri and right back Jasper Loeffelsend accelerating after their first touch numerous times through tight spaces and Filip Mirvovic sending pinpoint passes to the next line of attack that included Velkjo Petkovic and Valentin Noel along with Alexander Dexter and Almeida working the wide spaces, the Panthers began to pick apart the Tar Heels with regularity.
Before the Tar Heels could recover, Pitt scored in the 12th, 20th and 36th minutes, and the fans at Ambrose Urbanic Field were treated to clinic held by Jay Vidovich and his players.
They also had some prominent soccer folks in attendance taking notice.
When in Pittsburgh , might as well catch the Pitt vs North Carolina match ⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/m41DzqSgiq
— DaMarcus Beasley (@DaMarcusBeasley) September 10, 2021
It was Almeida who shone the brightest on this night.
The senior from Salvador, Brazil, who’s been with the program since 2018, but has dealt with injuries starting in just eight of 29 total matches in his previous three season, showed that he can be another special attacking player for this team already loaded with proven scorers at this level.
After Petkovic scored the first goal in the 12th minute, the Panthers had UNC on it’s heels (no pun intended) — and when Noel’s shot was stopped — the rebound came back spinning toward Petkovic. Instead of trying to beat the keeper who came off his line, Petkovic played a quick one-touch pass with the bottom of his boots to Almeida who was in perfect position to the right.
Almeida provided a clinical finish to give Pitt the commanding 2-0 lead.
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) September 10, 2021
He wasn’t done there.
In the 36th minute, Almeida s displayed impressive vision and skill in scoring his second goal after a through ball was deflected. He quickly took a touch and caught UNC keeper Alec Smir off his line.
A brilliant goal ⚽ from @Rodrigom26!
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) September 10, 2021
“He’s come as an unbelievable talent. He’s had injuries, and haven’t been able to shake them. He’s worked really hard. He’s a team guy. I’m excited that he’s finally been able to play. His goals have been fantastic. I’m so happy for him that he’s been able to contribute.”
The Panthers coasted from that point and its defense was up-to-the-task against a North Carolina team that wasn’t shy in creating shot opportunities, but were inefficient in the final third.
Pitt on the other hand were the model of efficiency on the evening, scoring four goals on its first six shot attempts.