Pitt men’s soccer head coach Jay Vidovich has turned the program from consistently finishing last in the ACC to one of the best in the country.
Heading into his eighth season, Vidovich has led the Panthers to four straight NCAA Tournaments, three straight Elite Eights and two College Cups. Many great players have come through the program, like forwards in Alexander Dexter and Edward Kizza, defenders in Arturo Ordoñez and Jasper Löeffelsend and others that have raised the profile of what it means to be a Pitt Panther.
Pitt had a slow start to last season, but played their best once the NCAA Tournament started. They dispatched of Cleveland State at home and No. 13 Akron on the road in the first two Rounds, upset No. 1 Kentucky in a 2-1 thriller in the Sweet 16 and then won in extra time against Portland at home in the Elite Eight to make it back to the College Cup.
Facing off against a solid No. 13 Indiana squad, Pitt gave up an early goal and then a late goal in the first half, dooming them to a 2-0 defeat.
Most of the roster from last season’s College Cup squad is not around in 2023. 10 players either graduated or are playing professionally and four players transferred, making it 14 of the 27 players, more than half, that are not here this season.
The offseason for Vidovich started in December following that loss to Indiana. It required scouring the country and all around Europe for the best talent to make this squad, once again, a top squad in the nation.
The 13 players that remained played in the Spring season and worked to prove themselves ahead of the arrivals in the ensuing summer period.
“The guys have been concentrated and focused so far,” Vidovich said on preseason training. “Right now, we’re happy with where we’re at and I think we’re also happy about it because the guys who were here in the spring realized how much more they have to give, the more they have to pick up on and they’ve been good at growing the culture within and that whole process of setting the culture and how we want to play.”
Along with the roster changes, Vidovich also had to change his coaching staff around heading into this season. Long-time assistant Michael Behonick, who joined Vidovich at Pitt in 2016, followed his wife, former Pitt volleyball assistant coach Lindsey Behonick, out to Oregon. Lindsey Behonick is the head coach of the women’s volleyball program at Oregon State and Michael Behonick is now the head coach of Western Oregon in Division II.
Along with Bryce Cregan, two more assistant coaches joined the Panthers coaching staff this offseason. Zach Schilawski played under Vidovich from 2006-10 at Wake Forest and came from UNC-Wilmington, where he served as an assistant coach for two seasons. He will work with the attacking players on the Panthers. Josh Oldroyd also joins the Panthers coaching staff from Kentucky, after spending five seasons there and will work with the goalkeepers.
Oldroyd had the responsibility of finding the next Pitt goalkeeper for the future, replacing Joe van der Sar, who started every game last season. Sophomore Cabral Carter is the only goalkeeper from last season that is on the roster, but did not play at all last season. Oldroyd played a part in recruiting three first-years to the team in Eli Mumford, Jack Moxom and Kyle Durham to the program. No one is set to serve as the starter and the goalkeeper battle will be one to watch going forward.
Defensively, Pitt had a great season last year, recording eight shutouts, tied for fourth most in a season, and the lowest average goals allowed per game in program history at 1.02.
Sophomore Jackson Gillman played as one of the best centre-backs on the team, as well as one of the best first-year players in the country. He started every game for the Panthers, third most minutes on the team and has a great chance to solidify himself as one of the best defenders in the country with another great season in 2023.
Junior Mateo Maillefaud is back from suffering a broken ankle in the spring. He came in midseason 2022 to fill in as starting left back and did a great job in improving his game on the way to a College Cup.
Sophomore Noah Hall possesses great speed and works best as a wing-back. Hall played 17 games last season and Vidovich said that he “really grew into the position” during the spring season. Fellow sophomore Andrew Brown, also known as “AB,” did not play last season as a first-year, but Vidovich is excited to see how’s grown from the spring and how he’ll develop over the season.
Vidovich also has high hopes for incoming first-year French defender Raphaël Cilli, who he sees at the right-back position or even in the midfield. Graduate Fabian Grau also has experience playing in professional leagues in Germany, stands at 6-foot-2, and will likely start at centre-back.
The midfield brings back a lot of great pieces, while also losing some legendary players as well. Jackson Walti, who holds the record for most minutes played at Pitt, and Valentin Noel, who created and scored in so many important situations, are both playing in MLS Next Pro.
Senior Filip Mirkovic made a program season best 12 assists in 2022 and will serve as the primary creator on the attack. His technical ability and his work on the ball make him one of the best at his position in Division I.
Former Deer Lakes legend and junior Michael Sullivan played as an attacking midfielder last season and improved his time on the pitch. Vidovich sees him trying to work in a “Jackson Walti role” which would see Sullivan sitting back more and working more as a central defensive midfielder.
Vidovich also expects great things from junior Guilherme Feitosa. He said that Feitosa is, “one of the best players in the country,” but that injuries have set him back his first two seasons. Feitosa had a strong spring and has been healthy in the summer, much to the delight of Vidovich.
Four midfield transfers come in for Pitt in junior Luka Kozomara, senior Felipe Mercado and graduates Joao Souza and Nick Blacklock.
Mercado was a leader at the Division II level with Charleston (W.V.), finishing first on his team with eight assists and also scoring four goals in 20 matches in 2022. Souza has experience winning a National Championship with Marshall in the 2020-21 season and played in 74 games across his four seasons there. Kozomara comes from Temple, where he played mainly in the defense, and Blacklock comes from ACC rival Virginia Tech, playing 71 games for them over four seasons.
First-year Santiago Ferreira is someone that Vidovich is excited to see grow within the program. The brother of USMNT and FC Dallas striker Jesús Ferreira, Vidovich described Ferreira as someone who has a “good feel for the game” and a “good soccer brain and technique.”
“Yeah we have some good options,” Vidovich said on his midfield. “There’s some guys that have experience, some guys who like the ball, that like to play and can bring other players into the game. Now it’s whether they’re willing to do the dirty work as well, which is get the ball for us and dig it out a little bit. If they step up to that situation, then we’ll be in a good spot.”
The forward and attacking options for the Panthers are full of new players and also those who have the chance to assert themselves this season.
Junior Luis Sahmkow, who has missed half the season his first two years, is “in the best shape of his life,” according to Vidovich. If he is healthy, he’ll serve as one of the better strikers in the ACC, as he has shown great talent when he has played.
Former Charleroi star and sophomore Eben McIntyre should also see more playing time this season. He’s worked as a winger and also, Vidovich sees him as a part of the defense, as he filled in for Maillefaud when he was out with injury. A WPIAL pairing of Sullivan and McIntyre in the attack in the future would certainly become a fan favorite at Ambrose Urbanic Field.
“The game is easier from when it’s in front of him than when it is when somebody’s on his back and he’s trying to make those decisions,” Vidovich said on McIntyre. “He has experience there. Everything else, he has the physical qualities, can use both feet, but he’s left-footed as well. He’s a swing guy also. It helps him with his defending when he’s a winger as well because it’s a key part of our game as well.”
There are also four new first-year attackers on the roster, along with walk-on in Winchester Thurston and Riverhounds Academy graduate Alex Hauskrecht.
Massimo Murania comes in from the NYCFC academy and will play as a central striker. Abdoulaye Toure comes from France and Vidovich believes that he will be, “earning a chunk of the starts.” Norwegian forward Albert Thorsen has the ability to play at striker and winger, and Zahir Dyke, who played in the Sporting Kansas City academy, should see the field as well.
“All of them, right now, no one is projected to do anything except to learn their job and show they can do it,” Vidovich said on his forwards. “That’s up to them.”
Pitt comes into this season as the favorites to win the ACC Coastal and also at No. 5 in the first Untied Soccer Coaches Poll.
Vidovich and the Panthers kick off their season against rival in the Penn State Nittany Lions this Thursday, Aug. 24 at home at 7 p.m. The in-state rivalry, along with the City Game against Duquesne, provide great opportunities for fans to engage with what should be another great season for the Panthers in 2023.
“I think that’s it, I think it’s good for college soccer,” Vidovich said on Pitt’s rivalry games this season. “I think the rivalries and the many different fan interests and the competitive situation for our guys to develop on, it’s a great, great situation for it.”