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Taking the Hard Road: Battle-tested Pitt now faces No. 1 Kentucky in Sweet 16

In the previous two seasons, Pitt men’s program made it to the NCAA Men’s Soccer College Cup in 2020 and came within a wisker of a second straight College Cup in 2021.

Even as they started the 2022 campaign highly ranked, but enduriing a rigorous schedule with a roster with new additions at some key positions, primarily reworking the entire back line and a new starting goalkeeper, the Panthers needed much of the season and early portions of the postseason to finally start to hit its stride.

Following its convincing 3-0 win in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, at Akron, it might be safe to say that Pitt has regained its footing as they continue push themselves back into the conversation as a serious contender to reach the College Cup.

Now they have to clear what may be the most difficult hurdle.

Beating No. 1 Kentucky on its home turf.

Considering how the regular season and the ACC tournament went for the Panthers, Head Coach Jay Vidovich and his team have no doubt have faced some of the toughest competition.

Because they finished the regular season with four losses, the Panthers were unseeded in the field of 48 teams in the NCAA Men’s Soccer tournament. They were put in the same group as Akron, who appeared to be the final seed of the top 16.

The Panthers went to Akron, and completely dominated that match from the start.

Pitt dominates Akron, 3-0, to return to the Sweet 16

“We’re happy with our progress,” Vidovich said to Pittsburgh Soccer Now after the Akron win.

“The guys continue to give me everything in practice and training. They’ve had big goals this year and it’s been a tough one and they just keep bouncing back. It tells me that they’ve got a lot of heart, resiliency and that they have big ambitions to fufill.”

Once again, Vidovich has built a squad that grown through the season to develop better chemistry and depth, which have been critical to Pitt’s ascension as a program and being able to make deep NCAA tournament runs in recent seasons.

While led by experienced seniors and graduate students that include Valentin Noel, who scored twice on Sunday, along with Filip Mirkovich and Jackson Walti in the midfield, they’ve also had solid contributions across the roster.

One of last week’s key heroes was Matteo Maillefaud, who stepped up in the starting role at left-back since senior defender Mohammad Abualnadi suffered an injury against Virginia on Sept. 30.

When thrust into a bigger role earlier in the season, Maillefaud, who often came on as a high-energy sub, had his struggles as a starter.

Against Akron, Maillefaud played with great composure on the ball and controlled the game, a sign of progress, after he made some mistakes earlier in the season. He was instrumental in creating chances offensively and drew the foul for the first penalty kick of the game.

Maillefaud credited his team for helping him improve over the season and that everyone is responsible for where the team is now.

“It’s teamwork,” Maillefaud said of the Akron victory.

“Very happy for the whole team and for the guys who came off the bench and made a huge effort. Everyone was ready for this game. It’s a good game, but now we have to think about the next game and be ready. So very happy for the team 3-0 clean sheet and very proud of the effort.”

In facing the top seeded team in the tournament, Pitt now faces a group in Kentucky that had a first round bye, then defeated South Florida, with a very strong second half effort, in a 4-0 win.

“I told the guys at halftime that I could already smell the turkey,” UK Head Coach Johan Cedergren said after the match.

“They went and they scored three goals to make sure that we got to stay together for at least another week to play Pitt (in the Sweet 16).”

As a displaced (in men’s soccer) traditional Southeastern Conference (SEC) school, the Wildcats (15-0-5) have a deep squad that won the revived Sun Belt Conference this season, by running through the season without a loss.

The Wildcats have balanced attack which has outscored its opponents 52-14 this season.

They feature playmaker Nick Gutmann (18 assists to go with 5 goals) and a pair of double-digit goal scorers who Pitt must account for: Norwegian forward Eythor Bjorgolfsson (10) and sophomore Danish forward Casper Grening (10).

Bjorgolfsson is a unique player. Tall and physical, fast and agile and a complete finisher inside the box, his ability to both create and score goals is what makes the senior one of the most valuable assets that any team would be desperate to have.

While Bjorgolfsson keeps Kentucky’s goal total high, perhaps the most complete player Cedergren has on his team is senior midfielder Gutmann.

The German midfielder is the straw that stirs the Wildcats’ attack.

The Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 last season too, but that’s where there run ended.  This is a group determined to go further.

“This year we definitely had our front three and four as some of the best in the nation and this year we are definitely better at putting away chances and getting the lead and keeping that lead instead of fighting to win games 1-0,” Midfielder Clay Holdstad said after the 4-0 win vs South Florida.

“It’s easier when you are putting three-to-four goals away instead of the one or two we are used to.”

Playing highly ranked teams and being in the Sweet 16 is nothing new for the Panthers, who under Vidovich’s calculated direction also subscribe to the Pro Wrestling legend Ric Flair saying: ‘To be the best, you have to beat the best.”

In addition to the incredibly challenging ACC schedule, Pitt has faced six of seven ranked teams in its non-conference schedule.

If the Panthers reach the College Cup again, no one can ever say they took the easy route.

“We know it’s going to be a hard game, but we have nothing but winning on our minds,” Mirkovich said recently.

“We’re more than capable of doing it. We have confidence. I feel very good about our team going into this matchup.”

Look for more on-site coverage from Pitt vs Kentucky, as PSN’s Midwest contributor Dan Angell will be in Lexington to cover the match.  

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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