If there’s been one constant for the Pitt Panthers men’s soccer program throughout the course of its recent run of success under Head Coach Jay Vidovich, is that no matter who they face, in most every win, and even in losses, they always seem to find ways to impose their style of play and dictate terms of most every match.
In its second National Semifinal loss to the Indiana Hoosiers in the past three seasons, the Panthers could never really take command of the match, losing 2-0, on the big stage of the College Cup in Cary, NC on Friday night.
Lineup, Formation & Tactics
Vidovich and his coaching staff didn’t change a thing as far as the starting line-up, as the Panthers rolled out the same starting eleven to face the Hoosiers that they’ve been going with through the 2022 NCAA tournament run.
In addition to the starting eleven (below), former Deer Lakes standout Michael Sullivan played 21 minutes, plus Luis Samhkow (13), Guilherme Feitosa (12) and Henrique Gallina (9) were part of the rotation of subs Pitt used in the second half.
Under the direction of its long-time coach, Todd Yeagley, Indiana also came out in its familiar formation, a staunch, well-organized 4-4-2, which adjusted to take away Pitt’s strengths.
Pitt showed in its impressive road wins at Akron and at Kentucky as well as its Elite Eight triumph at home against Portland, they would focus on dictating terms with build-up in possession through the middle and into the final third with lots of movement and combinations of one-two touch passing and pressure from the width.
The Hoosiers were willing to let Pitt play and went into the match willing to concede space in the middle, but through its man-marking tactics they looked to squeeze the Panthers attack and not allow them to string together passes in the final third and get into dangerous positions.
‘Everything Was Just a Bit Off”
Just a dozen minutes into the National Semifinal rematch with the Hoosiers, the Panthers didn’t look like themselves.
From the outset, Pitt’s central midfielder pairing of Jackson Walti and Filip Mirkovic were finding room to navigate through the middle, but the Hoosiers began bottling up all of their options, by double-marking third-team All-American attacking midfielder Valentin Noel, and keeping numbers in front of Pitt’s dangerous right flank creators, Bertin Jacquesson and Lucas Rosa. they were also denying Noel’s partner Rodrigo Almeida to link up passes through the middle of the final third. A few times Pitt tried to play the switch, and work over diagonal balls to the left side to Josh Luchini, but the Hoosiers were quick to retreat and take away any space.
“Indiana were kind of like, man-marking. So our plan was to try move at each other,” Noel said on what made Indiana so tough defensively.
In turn, the Hoosiers were able to counter attack through the center and from their right side, putting plenty of pressure on Pitt’s center backs with a heavy dose of previous Panther killer Herbert Endeley bulldozing his way into the Hoosier right side of the attacking third by dribbling right at and taking on a smaller Matteo Maillefaud.
By the 13th minute, Maillefaud committed the Panthers’ sixth and most critical foul of the match as the Hoosiers brought pressure in, and Endeley went to the ground.
Goalkeeper Joe van der Sar was up to the task on the Ryan Wittenbrink’s penalty attempt, making the initial save, but the rebound bounced right back to the Hoosiers’ red-hot forward, who had a fairly clinical put-back for the early lead.
Now down a goal, the Hoosiers forced Pitt’s hand, but the Panthers were willing to be patient and stick to its game plan.
While the Panthers were building out of the back and through the middle with their usual efficiency, they were not creating enough moments in the final third.
The way the Hoosiers were defending, they were practically daring Walti and Mirkovic to take a run at shots from distances, while the rest of the Panther attackers were well marked.
Walti took notice, and fired a terrific chance in the 26th minute, forcing Indiana keeper J.T. Harms to dive to make his only save of the half.
For the most part, the Panthers were held in check for the remainder of the first half.
“I don’t think we found our form today,” Vidovich said after the match.
“The energy, the competitiveness that we needed to play, the timing, everything was just a bit off.”
“The second goal was a killer”
Pitt knew that if they could get into the halftime break down one goal, they could regroup, and be ready to come out to take the game to Indiana in the second half.
IU’s Tommy Mihalic changed that.
With the clock counting down at the end of the first half, Mihalic found room to skirt across the middle of the box as Pitt defenders took away the middle, forcing him to the far right endline.
From the edge of the line, and time running down, Mihalic had just enough room to send a ball past his closest Pitt defender, Jackson Gilman, delivering a low, hard shot from a very sharp angle that slid just inside the right post, catching van der Sar off guard.
— Indiana Men's Soccer (@IndianaMSOC) December 10, 2022
Just like that, the Panthers headed into the break down two goals, against a team that had not surrendered a goal the entire NCAA tournament.
The first goal hurt us,” Vidovich said.
“But the second goal killed us.”
Pitt pushes to turn the tide in the second half
Vidovich spoke with ESPNU reporter after the break, adding that he team would have to stretch the field and put Indiana in uncomfortable positions. While his squad was patient and appeared to still be methodical in its build up to through the final third after they fell behind 1-0, they had to add a sense of urgency to get one back early in the second half to turn the momentum in the second half.
They came close a few times, but Indiana made them work for every inch.
A good opportunity arose when junior forward Bertin Jacquesson ran through on goal, but Harms pushed it out for a corner in the 59th minute. The ensuing corner kick from junior midfielder Filip Mirkovic saw first-year defender Jackson Gillman head it at goal, but Harms saved it yet again, diving to his right to make the stop.
The best chance for Pitt came in the 75th minute, and it came from the French Connection that had bailed Pitt out so many times before.
Could they connect one more time?
Noel put in a great ball into the box for fellow countryman Bertin Jacquesson, who headed the ball with lots of pace, but again, Harms was there to make brilliant diving save to keep the clean sheet.
— NCAA Soccer (@NCAASoccer) December 10, 2022
“As coach said, we didn’t really find our form. We didn’t really create chances. We were not really dangerous,” Noel added.
“So that’s why we lost that game. We didn’t create that many chances.”
For the rest of the way, the Hoosiers were effective in limiting opportunities, controlling the tempo and shutting down any chance of a Pitt comeback.
“It was a really tough hole for us to climb out of,” Vidovich added.
Like the Panthers, the Hoosiers had some bumps in the road during the regular season, but really found their form in the postseason. A program that is used to lifting trophies, Indiana came up short in the Big 10 regular season and in the Big 10 tournament, once again stuffed Pitt in a National Semifinal with tremendous team defending.
IU won its most recent championship in 2012 and last made the final in 2020, when they lost to Marshall in the Final.
“It’s been one heck of a journey this year to evolve as we have and be playing, I feel, our best soccer of the year through all the details that are required to be championship-level,” Yeagley said.
“And now we’re 90 minutes away from forever leaving their mark.”
Remarkable run ends for Pitt Seniors and Graduate Students
The result was a tough one for Pitt, to come up short in the National Semifinal for the second time in three seasons. As the old adage goes, the higher you climb the mountain, the harder the fall.
Walti stayed on the field to embrace his longtime teammate, Rodrigo Almeida, who he also played with prior to coming to Pitt at Montverde Academy.
Walti, who arrived on campus before the Panthers had ever won an ACC postseason match or even played in an NCAA tournament, wore the captain’s armband for much of his tenure, one that was not only a record breaking acheivement for the Pitt program with 100 appearances, but he tied the NCAA men’s college soccer record too.
Along with Walti, other Panthers who have maxed out their eligiblity include Luchini, Rosa, Yanis Leerman and Gallina who each transferred to Pitt as graduate students. Due to COVID-19 exemption for the 2020-21 season, some of the other seniors may have an extra year of eligiblity.
“I don’t think it’s really set in just yet,” Walti said on his season and career ending at Pitt.
“I think it’s the first time in my life it’s not certain that I’m not going to have another soccer game. I think that’s pretty hard to swallow. But I’m proud of the effort from the guys. Tonight wasn’t our night, but what a season. The guys have been a long time. I think we’re all proud of ourselves and I think we’re going to look back on this. Maybe not tonight, maybe not next week, but in the future we’ll look back on it and remember as some of the best times we’ve had.”