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The Last Noel: Extra time goal and lots of fortitude sends Pitt to second College Cup berth in three seasons

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

With a trip to the NCAA Men’s Soccer College Cup on the line, Pitt men’s soccer team dominated its match against the Portland Pilots for over one hundred minutes and in every aspect except in one important area.

They couldn’t score.

As the match reached extra time, despite Pitt’s performance, Portland did everything it could to disrupt the rhythm and flow of the Panthers’ attack.

Eventually, the Panthers would pull through for the 1-0 victory, as Bertin Jacquesson’s cross connected with Valentin Noel for the game winner.

It was a match that turned out to be a true battle of attrition for a Pitt team that’s experienced its share of adversity this season.

FINAL: Pitt 1, Portland 0, AET (NCAA Men’s Soccer Quarterfinal)

“Can’t tell you how proud I am of our guys for staying in there for all of regulation and into extra times, and we fought the whole game, they kept it clean and created a lot of opportunities,” Head Coach Jay Vidovich said after the match.

“They never let up. It’s difficult to play a team that didn’t want to play. I told the guys at halftime, to be like waves on the beach, to keep coming and coming,”

In addition, the match would be played with the winds gusting over 20 miles per hour at the peak of Pitt’s upper campus where Ambrose Urbanic Field sits on what turned out to be a bright, sunny December afternoon.

This provided an additional layer of adverse conditions for both teams to navigate.

Vidovich didn’t mince his words with his feelings for the weather.

“The wind sucks,” Vidovich said, as he finally warmed up in the Peterson Sports Complex after the match.

The Panthers came out with a similiar lineup that they’ve used through their NCAA tournament run, putting their foot on the gas right from the start, with their top line attackers getting into the box and creating chances.

The Panthers played into the wind in the first half, and didn’t seem to have any trouble, especially as they did most of their work by keeping the ball on the ground.

“With the way we play, trying to pass, the wind affected us less,” Vidovich added.

“It’s when we deviated from that, and played longer balls, that’s when it impacted us. Trying to get in behind the ball, and it got away from us.”

The Panthers had five shots in the opening 10 minutes.

In the third minute Rosa has a strike from the top of the box forcing a diving save by the Portland keeper.

Pitt retained control and followed with cross and diving header by Jacquesson that slid just wide of frame

In the sixth minute, Jacquesson sent a driving cross into the box that was redirected on goal by Almeida that was blocked off the line by a Portland defender

Rosa, recognized that Portland was giving him plenty of space to operate, so he advanced forward again, adding a right foot blast from just inside the box deflected over the cross bar by Portland keeper George Tasouris in the ninth minute.

At the behest of Vidovich’s instructions, the Panthers’ never stopped coming.

Noel, the Panthers’ second all-time leading goal scorer had six shots, along with fellow frontline attacking midfielder Rodrigo Almeida (5 shots), central midfielder Filip Mirkovic (6), Lucas Rosa (5) and Jacquesson (5) were among the group of attackers who kept coming but could not find an elusive goal, as Tasouris made save after save also while finding ways to try to get under the skin of the Panthers.

At the end of the first 45 minutes, Pitt had an overwhelming 15-1 advantage in shots (with six of those on frame).

Portland, playing with the wind to its backs, weren’t able to create much until the later part of the first half, when Brandon Cambridge did get behind the right side of the Pitt back line, for a ball into the box that forced Joe van der Sar to punch away.

“The wind was so strong, that the ball was carrying, and we didn’t play enough.” Portland Head Coach Nick Carlin-Voigt acknowledged.

“But, Pitt is a very good passing team. They have good rotations in the midfield and they control the ball. That pushed us back more behind the ball. It was a lot of what they were doing, but what we were not doing too, and that was play to our strengths.”

If anything, Pilots were effective in slowing the match down and disrupting the Panthers momentum and rhythm, especially in the second half.

“We weren’t out best in the first half, but as the game went on, we grew into the match,” Carlin-Voigt said.

“We got stronger. It remained nil-nil, but we had a few chances. Then we started rotating, and playing more the way we like to. But obviously tough conditions, but both teams had to deal with them. I don’t think it had anything to do with the result. It took us a while to figure out the field, the conditions.”

At one point, Tasouris, who was taking as much time as he could on every goal kick or repossession for Portland, started to become harrassed by the more than 2,000 fans in attendance, as they began counting off the seconds every time he held on to the ball.

Within a 20-minute time span in the second half, Portland picked up four yellow cards, including Tasouris for his time wasting tactics, after an awkward interaction with the one Panther who had been come into close contact with the most, Noel.

“He was having an issue with me,” Noel admitted. “I was messing around with him. There’s those little one-v-one battles, and it’s a high stakes game. I basically tried to put him out of his game.”

Still, despite the game slowing down, Pitt still pushed and created close calls in the second half, hitting the post on a few occasions.

In the 68thminute Rosa dispossessed a Portland defender near the top of the box, then fired a diving shot that slid past Tasouris and off the outside edge of the left post

Noel hit the same post in the 75th minute with a header off a Jacquesson cross after he beat a Portland defender on the end line.

Regulation ended with a flurry.

Noel had a golden chance on the left edge of the box, receiving a header that came to him, driving a shot on frame but Tasouris’ diving stab with his left hand ensured that the match would go to extra time.

At the end of regulation, Pitt had 28 shots, with nine of those on frame, and still nothing to show for controlling all aspects of the match.

“It wasn’t that they were lucky opportunities,” Vidovich explained while also admitting to his team’s exasperation with the way things were going.

“They worked very hard to create those situations. Portland worked hard to keep us out of those spots. When you are just missing, or their keeper’s coming up big, that’s frustrating.”

No matter how high the stakes are in pressure packed situations, Vidovich is also always the teacher to his players, and used the adversity faced in this match as another lesson in a season where Pitt has faced many obstacles.

‘But, that’s where the strength with the lesson learned today, was to stay with the plan, and they did.”

As the Panthers headed into extra time, they didn’t let their frustration set in.

“There was no overtime this year (in regular season games) to figure things out. The one time we did (vs NC State in ACC First Round playoff), the guys got the result,” Vidovich explained.

“So the guys were confident and they felt good about it and going through to the end and stay with what we’re doing.”

Mirkovic nearly set up Josh Luchini with the game winner, but Tasouris snuffed out a low, close range shot from Luchini on the back post in the early portion of the first extra time period.

In the second period of extra time, Jacquesson sent consecutive crosses to the middle of the box, then to the back post area.

Neither of those could create the breakthrough moment, with one of those connecting with Noel, who sent a header chance barely wide of the right post in the 102nd minute.

While the Pilots didn’t have a lot of attacking chances, as the extra time period commenced, they knew all they needed was one moment and they didn’t completely bunker away 10 men in the box.

Portland had a few corner kick opportunities, forcing Pitt into some uncomfortable situations in the first and early in the second overtime periods.

“We played to win,” Carlin-Voigt said in response to a question if his team was hoping to go to penalty kicks.

“In overtime, it was four-to-three shots. I thought it was pretty even. We had our chances. So did they. But we were also confident going to penalty kicks because we have a great goalkeeper.”

Finally, in the 104th minute the Panthers finally broke through, as the team’s French connection of Jacquesson and Noel hooked up in the nick of time to prevent their fate being decided by a penalty kick shootout.

“I knew he would try to dribble, and make a fake run, then try to cross it,” Noel said of his longtime teammate’s intentions on the lead up to the goal.”

On his previous redirect attempts in the match, Noel sat back a bit deeper, behind the goal post, and missed closely.  This time he was more aggressive in making a move on the ball, even with two defenders right there in the middle of the goal box in front of him.

“I just try to stay in the little pocket in the box to put myself in a good position to score. He played me a perfect ball and I put my head on it.”

Jacquesson hit a darting, hard-lining cross that didn’t allow Portland defenders to react.

It was Noel, who’s been on the end of so many of Jacquesson’s services into the box for the last three seasons, who knew exactly where to be when the ball left his teammate’s foot.

Noel netted his 11th goal of the season. The French connection, Noel-Jacquesson tandem has combined for 19 goals and eight assists on the season. Noel now has 83 career points and is just one point shy of tying Eric Prex and Joe Luxbacher for the all-time scoring record at Pitt.

With his assist, Jacquesson moved into sole possession of second place on the all-time assist charts (23)

“I knew he would be there,” Jacquesson said, with full belief in his teammate.

The Panthers have scored many goals in recent years as the program has become a National Championship contender.

There have been some exciting game-winners along the way, but after 104 minutes of suppression, frustration and grinding through close call after close call, this Jacquesson to Noel goal brought out an exuberant and somewhat costly celebration, as four Panthers were booked with yellow cards for unsporting behavior, including Noel, who ripped off his shirt.

“Your brain shuts down at that point, you get so excited,” Noel said in the post game press conference.

Also earning yellow cards in that celebration included Mirkovic, forward Luis Sahmkow and Mateo Maillefaud.

Following the goal, the Panthers still needed to close the match out, with six more minutes left on the clock.

The Pilots tried to push forward a few times, but couldn’t find any quality shot opportunities in those waning moments.

“We had our hearts ripped out on that cross and that goal,” Carlin-Voight said in reflection.

“I was proud of our men, and the fight that they had.”

Pitt was on attack throughout the game, ending the contest with a commanding 32-8 advantage on shots, including 11-2 in shots on goal.

Pitt goalkeeper Joe van der Sar did get put into action with two saves, including smothering an up close attempt in the 70th minute en route to his 8th clean sheet of the season.

On the other side, Tasouris had to make 10 saves to keep Portland in the match.

“You can tell they’ve been to Elite Eight before,” Carlin-Voight added.

“They were able to carry large portions of the game.”

The Panthers will now face a rematch against Indiana as the two schools met in the College Cup semifinal for the 2020-21 season played last May.

Unlike the 2020-21 team that reached the College Cup, this Pitt team is going to be returning to College Soccer’s biggest stage as a team that has perservered through a lot in a shorter window in a mad dash of a season that flies by from late August to early December.

“It was a real test for the guys this year, who’ve been in a lot of situations. We’ve had a little bit of that. Several times this year,” Vidovich said.

“These guys had to persevere more through difficulties in a tighter span. The beliefs they stayed in, to stay with the plan, and in each other, has made it very special to them.”


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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