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Retooled Pitt men’s soccer to run gauntlet to start season

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

Pitt men’s soccer head coach Jay Vidovich has helped elevate his program to an elite level during the past half decade plus.

And, judging by the early season schedule, the Panthers intend to face the best competition both in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and also as they open a new campaign against nationally ranked sides from outside the ACC with a retooled roster.

To start off, the Panthers will face two opponents in the top 10, including its season opener vs No. 2 Georgetown on Thursday, then they’ll face upstart West Virginia, who under Head Coach Dan Stratford, rose to national prominance last season, finishing as a top 10 program and a National Quarterfinalist (ironically, losing to Georgetown in the Elite Eight). After hosting Howard on Labor Day, the Panthers will travel to Huntingdon, WV, to take on the 2020-21 National Champions, Marshall. To top off the first five matches of the season, they’ll open ACC competetion against the team many believe will be its toughest challenger for the Coastal Division crown, North Carolina, at Chaplel Hill, on Friday, September 9.

Vidovich will know lot more about his team and some of his new players after going through yet another early gauntlet to begin the season. This has become something of rite of passage for Pitt. Last year, they started just 2-2, after being dealt road losses at WVU and Akron.

The Panthers enter the 2022 season ranked No. 7 in the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Poll. Pitt finished last season 13-5-2 overall, defeating Northern Illinois and Hofstra in the NCAA Championship to make a second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.

Of their five losses, three came to ACC rival Notre Dame, with the final one coming on the doorstop of a second consecutive FInal Four appearance. The Panthers were denied a chance to advance in heartbreaking fashion, losing to the Fighting Irish on penalties.

Panthers fall to Notre Dame in Elite Eight

The program has been program was tabbed as ACC Coastal Division favorites, while midfielder Jackson Walti was named to the ACC Preseason Watch List, as voted upon by the league coaches and announced by the ACC office Tuesday morning.

The squad has been picked high once again heading into the 2022 campaign because they still have plenty of experience and talented players, even as they have to do some reloading. (As I wrote in December, we anticipated some roster overhaul this season).

In addition to Walti landing on the ACC watch list, Bertin Jacquesson (who attended the MLS combine last December), Valentin Noel and Filip Mirkovic have been key contributors to teams from the previous two seasons which made it as far as the National Semifinals (2020-21) and Elite Eight (2021).

Pitt’s Jackson Walti, Bertin Jacquesson, Filip Mirkovic and Valentin Noel earn preseason honors

In total, if you include defender Mohammad Abaulnadi, Guilherme Feitosa and Rodrigo Almeida, the Panthers will return a total of seven starters.

Vidovich acknowledged after last season, there was work to do to reload the roster and those stepping into more prominent roles or coming into the program would have “plenty of big shoes to fill.”

The veteran coach and his staff brought in a number of seasoned transfers who will likely step into key roles in the squad rotation.

Among the transfers coming into the program include former North Allegheny standout Josh Luchini, who had an exceptional college career at Lehigh, scoring 25 goals and adding 12 assists. Luchini was honored as the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 and earned United Coaches All-Region selection.

Luchini earns Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year honors at Lehigh

With an opportunity to return to his hometown as a graduate student, with one additional year of eligiblity, Luchini provides the Panthers’ attack with another dynamic and experienced option alongside Noel as an attacking midfielder or he could excel on the wing in the Panthers’ patented 4-2-2-2 formation.

Other graduate student transfers include Yanis Leerman (Defender, Central Florida), Ideal Shefqeti (midfielder, Farleigh Dickinson), and Henrique Gallina (Defender, South Florida).

Like Luchini, Gallina, Shefqeti and Leerman have lots of collegiate experience and bring valuable impressive skill sets to the Panthers. From looking at some of his accomplishments and highlight reels when he was at South Florida, Galina may be the playmaking two-way catalyst who help fill the void left behind by Jasper Loeffelsend, who was drafted and has been featuring for Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer.

Leerman is a defender who may be looked on to replace the loss of Arturo Ordonez, who was also drafted by Houston Dynamo, but has signed on and has thrived with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in his first professional season.

Gallina believes that getting to Pittsburgh in the Spring helped him get better acquainted with the group.

“It gave me an opportunity to get included with the group, to show who I am. We really got to know each other. Get the chemistry going,” Gallina stated in his interview on Pittsburgh Sports Live.

Gallina also added that his new teammates have been welcoming, but also knowing that the graduate student transfers bring lots of experience, so he’s expected to adjust quickly into a program where the bar is set very high.

“They expect you to learn quick. Know what you’re supposed to do,” Gallina added. “And expect to lead a bit, especially that we know the college game. With my experience, my mindset was I knew what I was coming to. I knew it was a challenge, but that’s what I like, to have an opportunity to be at the top level.”

The biggest question marks coming into the season for the Panthers come with the back line, where Ordonez, Loeffelsend and Rafael Crivello are all gone, and at the goalkeeper spot, where Nico Campuzano played almost entirely through the last two seasons. They do have a returning senior, Joe van der Sar, from the Netherlands, who is likely get the nod at the start of the season in net. His competition for the starting spot would come from three freshman, Cabral Carter, Killian Vallant and reshirt Andrew Noel. Noel was a part of NY Red Bulls Academy and part of US Men’s Soccer U17 Camp.

There are other players to keep an eye on.

Luis Sahmkow, a sophomore from Texas, saw more and more playing time later in the 2021 season, and local product, Michael Sullivan, from Deer Lakes, enters his sophomore season after seeing action in 12 games and logging 141 minutes. Sullivan finished with one goal, three shots and one shot on goal.

Another player who is from Western PA, is Eben McIntyre. The former Charleroi High School standout, opted to graduate early from high school, enrolling at Pitt in the Spring to get a head start on his development and studies. McIntyre did see playing time in the spring as an outside back.

Jackson Gilman from the Philadelphia Union Academy, and who saw action with Union II in MLS Next Pro this year, is another intruiging addition to the roster, and a player who can develop as an outside back in Pitt’s system. Gilman originally committed to Penn State, but switched this Spring to Pitt.

There still may be some questions about how the Panthers will line-up (see below for our best guess for the starting XI), but it’s clear the Vidovich and his staff have reloaded the roster in a way that they’ll be in contention to have another great season.

It all starts with a top-10 match-up at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Thursday night against Georgetown.

“It’s definitely going to be quality level of play on both ends. Both teams are good defensively,” Gallina said.

“We have been preparing for a while now, for this match-up and for the season as well. But the first task is Thursday night at 8 p.m. We’ll be ready.”

More notes from Pitt Athletics

The Panthers received six first-place votes in the Coastal Division, edging out second-place North Carolina, who received five votes. Pitt has won at least a share of the Coastal Division crown each of the past two seasons, posting a 14-3-1 record in ACC play in that span.

Pitt also earned two votes as the overall champion, while 2021 NCAA Champion Clemson received a league-high six votes.

Pitt Men’s Roster
Bold: Returning Starter/featured player in 2021

John Krysinsky’s Projected Depth Chart / Lineup Selections

2022 ACC Men’s Soccer Preseason Coaches’ Poll
Overall Champion
Clemson, 6 votes
Pitt, 2
North Carolina, 2
Notre Dame, 1
Wake Forest, 1

Atlantic Division
Clemson (9), 64
Wake Forest (3), 55
Louisville, 47
Syracuse, 33
Boston College, 28
NC State, 19

Coastal Division
Pitt (6), 57
North Carolina (5), 52
Notre Dame (1), 44
Duke, 38
Virginia Tech, 34
Virginia, 21
First-place votes in parentheses

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).

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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