Pitt’s men’s soccer has been a team with a target on its back for much of the Fall 2021 season.
The Panthers’ brought back 10 of 11 starters from the team that made it to the College Cup.
Despite having such a large number of starters back, the Panthers had to contend with a difficult non conference schedule including some challenging road matches, they faced lofty expectations (were picked to finished first/win ACC) in the toughest conference in all of men’s college soccer while still trying to keep its core roster intact.
Arguably, the Pitt player with the biggest target on his back this season has been Valentin Noel.
The resurgent and nationally ranked program’s leading scorer who was a Mac Hermann Award finalist (also a first in Pitt program history), it would have been easy to assume that Noel would pick right up where he left off, racking up goals at a continued high rate.
In the 2020-21 season, Noel emerged as Pitt’s go-to finisher.
Noel finished among the top players in the country in multiple offensive categories, including total goals (14 – 2nd in nation), total points (30 – 3rd in nation), goals per game (.74 – 13th in nation) and points per game (1.58 – 23rd in nation).
For most of the Fall 2021 campaign, Noel has been a constant in the lineup, but he hasn’t been as involved in scoring goals.
Heading into the ACC tournament quarterfinal match on Sunday, Noel scored just four goals, but has continued to be a valuable asset to the Pitt midfield and attack as an invaluable two-way player.
Prior to the Panthers’ match against Virginia, when he scored twice, Noel had only scored twice, once in the 7-0 rout of Duquesne and another in an important 4-0 win against North Carolina.
Pitt’s Head Coach Jay Vidovich, wasn’t too concerned, citing Noel’s contributions in various ways that helped contribute to the team’s success in winning the Coastal Division title for the second season in a row.
“I still keep going back to Valentin’s freshman season,” Vidovich said, of Noels first year with the program when he scored three goals and had three assists in more than 1,500 minutes. “He’s so valuable. He adds to the team’s offense, to the defense, with (setting) our tempo, when we press out.”
While Noel’s continued on as a steady presence in the lineup, some of they guys who’ve provided service from the wings and midfield and regular partners at the top of the attack, like Alexander Dexter, Bertin Jacquesson and Velkjo Petkovic have been in and out of the lineup this season.
“Lot of his goals have been missing because the service we had last season, haven’t been there as much,” Vidovich added. “We haven’t had those guys on the field. They’ve been battling injuries or form throughout the season.”
Only a few minutes into Sunday’s match, Noel broke through to give the Panthers a lead thanks to a quality service from Matt Bailey by the left endline. It was a goal that required a perfect placement of a one-time volley to drive a shot through a crowded box and past Virginia Tech goalkeeper Ben Martino.
Noel was consistently a nuisance and was a threat throughout the evening against Virginia Tech, putting forth is best performance of the season, while playing more than 95 minutes for the third time this Fall.
He delivered season highs with shots (5) and shots on frame (all 5 were on goal), keeping Martino busy reading every one of his shots.
With the match level and the Hokies holding firm defensively under pressure, and showing enough danger on the counter-attack to, as Vidovich said after the match, ‘keep us honest,” the Panthers were going to have to find a way to eventually break through or taste a bitter defeat early in the ACC tournament and lose its first match at home in 19 games.
“For us, we started finding a little bit more, the holes, the spots there,” Pitt’s veteran coach acknowledged after the match. “We were getting closer and closer to finding the next goal. Didn’t want to go to PKs.”
That’s when Noel turned to his inner thoughts. He had to help find a way go get the Panthers over the finish line to advance in the tournament where they came up short a year ago.
“We’ve had our share of ups and downs from this season. We’ve learned a lot from it. We’re already for the (ACC) tournament and the NCAA (tournament),” Noel said prior to the match.
“We’re going into the ACC tournament, with a little revenge, in our head, in our heart. It’s one game at a time.”
Noel would have to find his way to do what he’s done best in the past few seasons at Pitt. Get to be in the right place at the right time. That would be the difference in helping keep the match from going to penalty kick shootout and from a possible early round exit from the tournament.”
“Talk without talking. That’s something I try to work on all the time. My reactions, how I react to things, especially on the pitch. It’s important to be aware of everything that’s going on,” Valentin pointed out. “You should never sleep on the field. That’s something Jay taught me.”
At the very start of the second overtime, and with the Panthers starting to find a few more openings, Noel put himself in position to be on the receiving end of the game winner.
In the 103rd minute of the match, Bertin Jacquesson, made a deep run down the right end line, the delivered a pinpoint short cross into the center of the box.
It was Valentin Noel who made a perfectly timed run, finding the right spot to be on the far post side to deliver the game-winner.
Instead of a fabulous strike or precise volley, this time all Valentin had to do was position his body and his foot to redirect a clinical finish into the back of the goal.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) November 7, 2021
For the kid who started playing soccer in France when he was seven years old, who wrestled with the prospect of coming to the United States to further his education, get a college degree and learn a second language, he’s grown in more ways than simply becoming a terrific goal scorer since arriving at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Jay and coaching staff have ability to get best out of you,” Noel added. “They always try to find something where you need to impove and evaluate what you are doing and what you can do better in the next game.”
Noel knows that his success and his team’s chances to go far once again, potentially winning the ACC tournament for the first time in program history and going far in the NCAA tournament won’t be don’t without a full team effort.
“It will take a team performance,” Noel said. “I can’t have any success without my teammates.”
This is a team that’s capable of doing more special things. And, with Valentin Noel starting to score goals in bunches again, the Panthers will only be more dangerous than ever.
The Panthers’ junior midfielder won’t be satisfied unless they get back to the College Cup, and win it all this time around.
“We had the whole university behind us in the Spring. From every sport. From every person, many students too. We felt a little bit bad because we came up short,” Noel said.
“It’s still in our head. This year, now, we’re looking to finish the job that we started.”
"I could continue my degree, play soccer at a high level and the fact I could learn a second language. It's like living a dream."
Check out this feature on our #️⃣8️⃣, @Vlnt_Noel!
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) November 6, 2021