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Analysis: Pitt’s attack not dynamic enough to solve stingy Notre Dame

Photo credit: Justin Berl/Notre Dame Athletics

Heading into its ACC semifinal round match with Notre Dame, Pitt men’s soccer team had scored at least one goal in its previous 23 matches at Ambrose Urbanic Field.

On Wednesday, the ACC tournament’s top seed and the No. 5 ranked Panthers were shut down once again by 20th ranked Fighting Irish, for the second time this season, losing 2-0, after surrendering a couple late second half goals that took the wind out of its attacking sails before another overflow crowd at Ambrose Urbanic Field.

FINAL: Notre Dame 2, Pitt 0 (ACC Men’s Soccer Quarterfinal)

Featuring an attack with a talented group of wingers and attacking midfielders, the Panthers are the highest scoring team in the ACC (2.68 goals per game), while statistically the Irish have allowed the second fewest goals per game in the conference (0.89 goals per game).

In the previous match during the regular season in October between the two sides, the Irish absorbed a lot of pressure in the early going, and eventually seized control of the match in the second match and in overtime, which they won, 1-0, on a golden wonder goal from Dawson McCartney.

Fast-forward to Wednesday’s ACC semifinal, both teams were coming off challenging Quarterfinal wins.

Notre Dame, entering the match without surrendering a goal in 300 minutes, went 110 minutes in a scoreless match with Louisville, then pulled out the win in penalty kicks.  Pitt and Virginia Tech both scored within the first 10 minutes, followed by a similiar script with the Panthers holding the possession edge while the Hokies defended well and looked to counter.

In Wednesday’s semifinal, the Panthers again came out on the front foot, but Notre Dame started the match trying to make it difficult. The Irish opened the match pressing Pitt’s back line and goalkeeper Nico Campuzano, forcing the home side to be extra careful when trying to build possession out of the back with blue shirts constantly pushing up with numbers.

In the early going, Pitt was able to not only weather this storm, playing primarily through its outside backs, as goalkeeper Nico Campuzano and the center backs used short passes to work the ball wide, both Jasper Leoffelsend (who was named ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season) and Raphael Crivello were effectively navigating away from the Irish resistance.

At times, Pitt were effective in finding huge gaps in the middle of the field, and then would play the ball out to the width.

Once Loeffelsend and Crivello worked their way into the wider channels, they were forced with a couple of choices.  First, they would find the two holding, central midfielders, Jackson Walti or Filip Mirkovic, who would carefully attempt to orchestrate build-up into the attacking third.

The other choice they were making were to send long, hard low lining passes to the attacking midfielders, Noel and Guilherme Feitosa.

In the early going, Notre Dame appeared to keep its back line tight and behind both Noel, Feitsoa in the middle, but also had its outside backs tucked in to deny Pitt’s wingers Bertin Jacquesson and Alexander Dexter any clear cut scoring opportunities.

The Panthers had room to manuever, and particuarly Dexter, found himself making run after run toward into the box and down to the left side end line.

What followed were a number of crosses and corner kick attempts.

In the first 20 minutes, Pitt had six corners, numerous crosses and shot blocked by Notre Dame’s defenders.

For much of the first half, Pitt continued to bring waves of pressure, but each time Notre Dame held firm, particuarly on corner kick attempts, as it seemed like they built a fortress in front of its goalkeeper Bryan Dowd.

Twice in the first half, Notre Dame found moments on the counter. First, in the 25th minute, Jack Lynn was fed a nice through ball, but Pitt’s center back Arturo Ordonez recovered, and made a sliding block to deny Lynn’s chance.

The Irish finally registered a shot on frame in the 39th minute when Daniel Russo delivered a hard lining shot but Campuzano was there to make a stellar save.

Pitt ended the first half with seven shots, seven corners and just one shot on goal (Noel’s chance in the early moments).

Irish Bend, Don’t Break  

When asked at halftime about what it would take to break through, Pitt Head Coach Jay Vidovich offered a one-word answer: finish.

Notre Dame’s Chad Riley was pleased with his team’s performance through the first 45 minutes, as if he knew his group would find more answers in the second half.

“We gave them some chances. We bent but we didn’t break,” Notre Dame Head Coach Chad Riley said.

Vidovich was particularly frustrated with the lack of balance in his team’s attack, pointing out most of the chances came from Dexter’s deep advances and the left side.

“We have to be much more of a right-sided, left-sided team,” Vidovich said. “I thought most of our actions came from the left side.  We have two fantastic attackers on the other side, in Jasper (Loeffelsend) and Bertin (Jacquesson), but I don’t think we made enough happen.”

Pitt struggled to finish on opportunites in the first half, and as the second half began, Notre Dame, much like it did in its previous match, started to tilt the match in its favor. The Irish started to keep the ball a bit more and find some rhythm, but most importantly, began to cause some hesitancy on Pitt’s part when getting forward. There were signs that the Panthers began to get a bit more impatient.  Instead of playing through its center mids, Walti and Mirkovic, they were trying to play a bit more direct from the back to Noel, Feitosa and its wingers.

This of course, played into Notre Dame’s hands, allowing the Irish to not simply bunker and absorb pressure, and hope to find a counter chance every now and then, instead the match started to open up on both ends.

More Pitt crosses and corners would come (they would finish the night with 17 of each), but as the match continued, they couldn’t find any clear cut chances.

Eventually, in the 77th minute, the Irish stunned the Panthers in a matter of seconds.

First, pressuring Pitt out of the back, a couple of Notre Dame players collided with Noel as he attempted and turned to dribble the ball through the midfield. It was Tyler Shea who came away with the ball, then found Lynn breaking forward to the right of both of Pitt’s center backs.

Shea then played Lynn a pass to his right foot.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer took it from there, finding just enough room to fire a shot from a tough angle that somehow caught Campuzano, who was in position by the near post, off guard.

As the shot ripped into the back of the net, the Panthers were left in disbelief.

“It looked like a tangle-up, a foul, or whatever, but they countered quickly,” Vidovich said.

The Panthers quickly tried to pick themselves up. Immediately after kickoff, trying to push numbers forward for a response, Pitt gave the ball away in the middle of the field.

“We committed a cardinal sin,” Vidovich explained. “We switched up Filip (Mirkovic) on the ball and had a square ball turned over in the middle of the park and they were able to jump us.”

Notre Dame jumped quickly and precisely.

A long, direct through ball, played about 40 yards through the middle of the field, was played to Lynn who was breaking wide on the right.  With Pitt’s shape completely stretched, Lynn played a ball to Russo who got behind Arturo Ordonez and Mohammad Abauldani.

It was a pretty clinical finish for Russo, and in a matter of seconds, the Panthers were behind, 2-0, and they never really recovered.

“In the second half, we started to get better defensive pressure on the ball that led to transition moments. It’s a game away from home, against one of the best teams in the country, you have to get comfortable not having the ball for a while,” Riley said after the match.

“We always want to be a team that gets stronger as the match goes on, and tonight was another example of that.”

Pitt walks away from another failed opportunity to capture the ACC tournament championship knowing they had their moments to get on top early in the match.

“We didn’t capitalize in the first half on numerous chances,” Pitt’s Head Coach Jay Vidovich. “The blood was in the water, but we didn’t push for it. They got their two goals against the run of play, off mistakes. Congratulations to Notre Dame.”

Riley likened this contest to an NCAA quarterfinal or semifinal level match.

Pitt will now prepare for the NCAA tournament, very much with national championship aspirations, but left with a bitter taste after a home loss that tarnished a fantastic run of play at Ambrose Urbanic Field.

“The young men have to finish. We have to put in the training time, have to work on this to finish in those situations,” Vidovich said. “We didn’t make the hard runs we need to, to get into the box. That’s the sport. If you don’t do those things, you don’t get the win.”

NEWS & NOTES

–        Pitt’s 19 match home winning streak is snapped with the loss. The Panthers entered with the ACC’s longest home winning streak and the second longest home unbeaten streak in the country.

–        Pitt recorded 17 corner kicks, the most under Head Coach Jay Vidovich while at Pitt. It was the most corner kicks in a single-game since the Panthers tallied 19 vs. Presbyterian Aug. 30, 2014.

–        The Panthers’ record moves to 11-5-1 overall. They await their seed in the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship, which will be announced via selection show Monday, Nov. 15.

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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