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Confident and mindful Panthers banking on third time to be the charm vs impenetrable Notre Dame

Hofstra’s men’s soccer Head Coach Randy Nuttall has been around college soccer for more than 30 years, but late Saturday afternoon after he watched his team fall 4-0 to Pitt, he walked away awfully impressed with the Panthers’ elite performance.

“I thought Pitt was outstanding,” Nuttall said. “The way they moved the ball. Their soccer IQ. Their athleticism. Their shape. From my point of view, probably the best college side I’ve faced in my 33 years.”

The Panthers were clicking on all cylinders against Hofstra, a team that came into the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament Third Round match unbeaten in its last 17 matches and fresh off an impressive 8-2 clobbering of the Big Ten champions, Penn State.

Jay Vidovich’s squad traded some early punches with Hofstra, but dictated tempo, and maybe most importantly, controlled possession to keep Hofstra from throwing too many big punches.

‘We kept the ball for long periods of time, which helped,” Vidovich said following the convincing win vs Hofstra. “This really helped us avoid them getting at us.”

Quite frankly, Pitt’s more patient and methodical approach in this match against a high-scoring and dangerous side showed the Panthers ability to win many different ways.

There are times when Pitt is eager to get into a back-and-forth, track meet style match, but against Hofstra, they were more strategic and were intent on controlling tempo from the get-go.

Vidovich also aluded to this being something Pitt has worked on attentively since the team got together in training camp in August. f

Pitt’s sharpness and confidence in playing the ball out by building possession through both the middle of the field through Filip Mirkovic and Jackson Walti in the central midfield and in the wider channels initiated by both outside backs Raphael Crivello and Jasper Loeffelsend was put on display in the NCAA Third Round win.

“We worked on that a lot,” Crivello, who also scored twice in the Hofstra win, explained.

“When to attack, when to keep it a little more, when to attack the open spaces and push when we have too.”

Now, the Panthers’ next challenge will be a different one altogether.

With a berth in the College Cup for the second consecutive season on the line, the high scoring Panthers will meet ACC foe Notre Dame (Saturday, December 3, 5 p.m. EST) for the third time this season in what will be a match of two teams that have been dominant in different ways.

Both times they’ve faced each other this season, the stingy and resilient Fighting Irish have walked away victorious.

Notre Dame has allowed Pitt to possess and control play in large portions in both matches, but each time, the Panthers failed to convert on its chances, losing at South Bend in the regular season, 1-0 in overtime, then 2-0 in the ACC Tournament semifinal played at Ambrose Urbanic Field.

These have been the only times this season the Panthers have been shut out.

Winning those two matches along with beating Duke in the ACC Final, Notre Dame (14-5-3) edged Pitt (13-5-1), barely, to earn the honor of being the ACC’s higher seed in the NCAA tournament.

However, the Tournament selection committee put the two conference rivals in the same bracket, and sure enough, Notre Dame (4th overall seed) and Pitt (5th overall seed) will meet in the Quarterfinal Round.

How tough has Notre Dame been to score against this postseason?

The Irish have feasted on the formula of playing tight physical contests eventually pulling away and being the stronger team later in matches.

While Pitt comes into this match having scored nine goals in two NCAA tournament games, the Irish have yet to surrender a goal, not just in the NCAA tournament (previous wins include Wake Forest, 2-0, and 3-0, vs Villanova), but also in the ACC tournament (wins vs NC State, Louisville, Pitt and Duke).

In the ACC semifinal against Pitt, the Irish followed its usual script: willing to concede possession, then took advantage of a couple of Panthers’ mistakes in the second half to leave Pittsburgh with a 2-0 victory.

“We dominated the match for long portions,” Mirkovic said. “We are the better team, but can’t afford to make any mistakes. We have to be disciplined when we play Notre Dame and can’t make any mistakes or they’ll take advantage of them.”

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

“We didn’t capitalize in the first half on numerous chances,” Vidovich said after that match. “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.”

In the early going of that match, Pitt had little problem handing Notre Dame’s press, playing primarily through its outside backs, as goalkeeper Nico Campuzano and the center backs used short passes to work the ball wide, both Leoffelsend (who was named ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season) and Crivello were effectively navigating away from the Irish resistance.

At times, Pitt was 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, Walti or 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, Valentin Noel and Guilherme Feitosa. Both players, who are usually pretty effective in breaking through and navigating though the middle, found nothing but constant Irish resistance with short passing attempts constantly botched and numerous shots blocked.

Pitt continued to push forward through the width, sent numerous crosses (they had 17 crosses in this match in addition to 17 corner kick attempts) but ended up with just three shots on frame.

Notre Dame built a fortress, and provided a swarming, physical presence on the edge of the box which denied final passes in Pitt’s build-up and attempts to get into the box. Many of the crosses were cleared away, and when Pitt had shot opportunities, they simply bounced off well-poisitioned Irish defenders.

The Panthers, who often close out space as well as any college side, came up short on second ball opportunities, which contributed to things tilting in Notre Dame’s favor in each of the previous matches.

While Pitt did bring waves of pressure in the ACC semifinal loss, Vidovich wasn’t pleased with where it was coming from, citing that much of it came from the left side initiated by Crivello and Alexander Dexter on the wing, adding that his team needed to attack from both the right and left sides.

Since the Notre Dame loss, in the NCAA tournament, Pitt’s right side winger Bertin Jacquesson has been on a tear, with three goals and four assists in the first two games.

The Irish have made their mark with its defense, but they don’t simply bunker and counter. They strike fast and hard, especially when an opponent makes mistakes.

Jack Lynn is the primary catalyst for the Irish attack. The All-ACC first team honoree leads the team with nine goals and four assists and had a hand in both goals in the ACC semfinal win vs Pitt, scoring the stunner in the 77th minute that broke the scoreless tie, then had the assist on Daniel Russo’s goal second later.

Dawson McCartney, Paddy Burns, Ethan O’Brien and Russo are all solid two-way play makers who will keep the Panthers, and primary its center backs, Arturo Ordonez and former Notre Damer, Mohammad Abualnadi, on their toes.

The Panthers defended very well against Hofstra, and overall have been very solid this season in its team defending, but will certainly be put to the test once again against Notre Dame.

Against a team that thrives on nervy late scoreless affairs, an early goal will likely do wonders for the Panthers against a side that hasn’t surrendered a goal the entire postseason.

“We’re going to play our game,” Mirkovic said. “We know we can take it to them and look to score early. That would be huge.”

Still, against Notre Dame, chances are also very likely that this could go to extra time, and possibly even a penalty kick shootout.

With a core group of players who have helped elevate the program to an elite status by winning back-to-back ACC Coastal Division titles and making deep runs in the NCAA tournament, they are fully aware that they can reach even greater heights, but will need to rely on intangibles.

“We’ve really focused this week on having a strong mentality” Mirkovic said. “We know what we’re capable of doing. Coach (Vidovich) has been emphasizing the importance of having a strong mindset. We have to be ready to respond to each challenge.”

On the doorstep of another College Cup, the Panthers would love nothing more than to beat Notre Dame to get there.

“We were so close last year, and we want to get back once again,” Mirkovic added. “Right now, it’s all about Notre Damwf3e though. We have a challenge in front of us, but we are confident we’ll be able to get the job done.”

Follow along with PSN’s Mark Goodman and Jordan Smith on Saturday for gameday coverage of Pitt-ND.

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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