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Leading young defensive corps at Pitt, Ashton Gordon excited to face former school, Arkansas, in NCAA second round

Ashton Gordon had to smile when the University of Pittsburgh women’s soccer team learned their fate in the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, Gordon, the fifth-year senior, knew she had to focus one game at a time. However, when her fellow teammates saw that they were put in the same quadrant as her former school, there was plenty of chatter.

Before the first round, Panthers head coach Randy Waldrum said that teammates joked with Gordon about the potential draw.

“When they announced it, everyone ‘ooo’d’ a lot,” Waldrum said with a smile. “It has to be on her mind somewhere. She’s professional enough to take care of business… but I’m sure when she saw that she had a lot of thoughts. It would be nice to get a result on Saturday and get that opportunity to get a win in such a big game for her.”

Well, it happened.

Arkansas got their result last Friday, taking down Grambling, 5-0. Pitt followed suit on Saturday, topping Ohio State, 6-0. Six different players found the back of the net for the Panthers, at home, to give them plenty of confidence and momentum into this Friday’s tilt against No. 2 Arkansas.

After the match, her teammates immediately came up to her, fired up about taking on her former school.

“It definitely sparked something,” Gordon said, moment’s after the Ohio State victory. “I have a ton of respect for Arkansas and the coaches and players there. But I am very excited to play that game.” 

Gordon isn’t much of an ‘inside agent’ though. She transferred to the University of Pittsburgh ahead of the 2021 season, featuring in her third year for the Panthers.

“I kind of have a soccer brain regardless of who we play and anyone that I watch I can pick up on ways to exploit them that can positively impact how we play,” she said. “That’s no different for Arkansas.”

Leading a young group around her

Gordon brings a different kind of ‘inside’ experience. Her veteran leadership, as a fifth-year senior, has given her an edge over younger defenders around the ACC and NCAA. However, around her, are much younger players.

In addition to learning and growing herself, Gordon is helping those around her grow. Behind her is a sophomore goalkeeper. To her right, a sophomore defender, and to her left, a freshman defender. Those players, respectively, are Ellie Breech, Katie Zailski and Olivia Lee.

“It’s just a matter of experience,” Gordon explained. “Anytime you do something for a long enough time, you start to gain wisdom and experience. Your problem-solving get a little sharper. I have experience on them. I have no doubt in my mind that whenever Katie, Olivia and Breech get to my point, age and level of experience, they will be doing the same exact thing.” 

This season, the Panthers began the year with a four-back formation, but have since changed to a three-back formation. A decoy ‘fourth’ defender drops back occasionally — usually Ellie Coffield. The three-back system has worked for Pitt, and they’ve been using it well.

Using the formation since the Louisville match in September has benefited Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, they have much more chemistry than the start of the season.

“It’s been incredible working with them. They each bring something unique to our unit of the backline,” Gordon said. “We each respond to things differently. It’s been a matter of learning how to give and receive feedback to one another, and being aware of one another’s strengths and weaknesses, because we all have them. We support one another and communicating with Katie is different than communicating with Olivia, and how both of them communicate with me is different than how they talk to each other. We’re just very aware of one another, our strengths and weaknesses, and how we need to be talked to. You build this cohesive unit.”

A future coach? She’s on the right track.

This year, Gordon said her goal, coming into the season, was to be the best teammate possible.

“That has ebbed and flowed because I’m a human,” she said. “I’m far from perfect, but every time I walk into training, a game or treatment, I want to be the best teammate and friend I can be. That was my biggest goal  going into this season; to positively impact those around me and leave them better than I found them.” 

Coach Waldrum praised Gordon’s leadership skills, saying she’s an example for the younger players.

“I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit,” Waldrum said before the Ohio State match. “Outside our team, she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. She’s already taking her coaching courses and doing her [U.S. Soccer Federation] C-License. She’s another coach on the field. It would be difficult if her didn’t have her, with the youth around her. When we’re training, I stand behind them and she’s constantly coaching from other field. It’s a big plus for the young players.”

Waldrum continued to say that one of Gordon’s best attributes is the way she delivers advice and criticism.

“She’s always confident. Ashton has a way where it’s positive, constructive,” he said. “Players look up to her, with the way she leads the team. She’s done a great job, not just with her play but with keeping the younger players organized.”

Heading into the Arkansas match, Gordon knows it’s going to be a challenge. However, one of the best moments of the Ohio State victory was having the opportunity to earn a clean sheet. That has boosted the defense and goalkeeper’s confidence heading into a tough tilt with the Razorbacks.

“You go up that many goals and you’re so proud of the attacking half of the field doing their part,” she said. “As a back, you want to continue to support the team by keeping a clean sheet and creating good habits. You need to be pretty solid and sound when you go into more challenging and significant games.” 

Gordon said that the recipe to Pitt’s success this season has been enjoying the game and playing with each other. This is a Panthers side that has broken more records, including most wins (15), most ACC wins (6) and most goals scored in a season (54).

“I think we played good soccer,” she said after the 6-0 trashing of the Buckeyes. “We had a lot of fun doing it. Whenever we have fun playing soccer, we play our best soccer. You can tell; we’re full of joy and happiness when we play when passes are connecting, people are going into tackles hard, winning one-v-one battles. It was a lot of fun and we had fun playing. Therefore, we played well.” 

The Panthers will take on Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. ET.

The sport of soccer is Rachael Kriger's area of expertise. Kriger covers Steel City FC for Pittsburgh Soccer Now and provides various columns, with occasional work with Pitt Women's Soccer. Elsewhere, Kriger is the co-managing editor of Last Word on Soccer and the social media coordinator and lead Liga MX Femenil writer for Equalizer Soccer. She is a member of the official NWSL Media Association and the North American Soccer Reporters, serving as the NASR's Vice President after two years in the role of Communications Director.

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