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Preview: Pitt’s determined to make third time the charm in NCAA women’s soccer tournament Elite 8 showdown with unbeaten perennial power No. 1 Florida St

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

Beating a quality team three times in one season is never an easy task.

As Pitt women’s soccer team (17-5-1) makes an unprecedented first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer tournament quarterfinal round, they are preparing to face top ranked Florida State (19-0-1) (Friday, 5:30 p.m., in Tallahassee, FL), for the third time this season.

It will be a tall task for Pitt.

Florida State remains the nation’s lone unbeaten team along with Stanford, and appear to be a team on a mission, after losing in last season’s College Cup National Semifinal to North Carolina, 3-2.

The Seminoles have been a regular at the Women’s College Cup, making it as far as the national semifinals each of the past three seasons and nine of the past 12.

They last won the national championship in 2021, a year after falling in the title game.

But the Panthers will not be intimidated by this familiar opponent.

Pitt’s deep NCAA tournament run gives merit to the notion that they can beat any opponent, and have been a team of destiny of sorts.

The Panthers have the ingredients to take down the Seminoles, and they nearly did so earlier this season.

Sure, all-time, the Seminoles are 13-0-0 vs the Panthers, and this will be the teams’ fifth match in the last two seasons.

Pitt’s program continued this season shattering team records and achieving more first-time accomplishments, including beating another traditional power, North Carolina for the first time in program history in the ACC Quarterfinals.

While Pitt’s Head Coach Randy Waldrum has issued in his comments a few times during this postseason that his team’s identity is unwavering, there’s no doubt that the veteran coach, who has won a pair of National Championships at Notre Dame, and coached Nigeria in this past Summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, will have some tactical adjustments to come at the start and throughout Friday’s match.

“One thing I think we kind of stayed true to is, we know where we are, we know what we have, we know where we’re good at, we know what we need to work on and we know what we need to be better at,” Waldrum said following Pitt’s 3-0 win vs Memphis to advance to the Elite Eight showdown with Florida State.

After a few hurried days to prepare, when the team got back to Pittsburgh early on Monday following a late Sunday night Round of 16 match in Arkansas, Waldrum and his staff have been focusing on players’ recovery. 

The team trained Tuesday and early Wednesday before they hopped on another flight, this time to Tallahassee.

“It’s been hectic,” Waldrum admitted.

“We played two high intensity matches over the weekend. We have quick turnaround time. I give a lot of credit to our training staff. And I am proud of our players. Those matches not only take a physical toll, but mental toll too. ”

Twice this season the Panthers pushed the Seminoles to the limit, only to come up short each time, with the Seminoles seemingly finding a second gear, turning up its attack with quick scoring bursts that allowed them to outlast the Panthers.

In the first match, on October 22, Pitt took a 1-0 lead on a Katie Zailski header in the 45th minute, but couldn’t hold on in the second half, as the Noles broke through for three goals in a 10 minute span. Samiah Phiri added a goal in the 81st minute to give Pitt a fighting chance in the final 10 minutes.

No. 1 Florida State second half goal scoring surge thwarts Pitt’s upset bid, 3-2

A few weeks later, Pitt met FSU in the ACC semifinal round, playing at a bit more of a disadvantage, having played the previous Friday, upsetting then No. 3 North Carolina in Extra Time, while Florida State was a bit more well-rested, with a first-round bye in the ACC tournament.

Once again, both sides took turns in creating chances, and felt each other out, but a couple explosive plays in a second half pushed FSU past Pitt.

Pitt Women’s Soccer Falls to Florida State, 2-0, in ACC Semifinals

Unlike previous seasons, this year’s Pitt squad is playing with tons of confidence, and have not been intimidated playing against Florida State.

The Panthers came out looking to attack in both matches vs the ‘Noles. Very few times did they sit back and hope for breaks on counter-attacks, nor did they throw tons of numbers behind the ball to bottle up FSU’s talented strikers and playmakers.

And heading into this third match with Florida State, and through its first three NCAA Tournament matches, the Panthers continue to show why they’re one of the highest scoring teams in the nation, and extremely resourceful in finding ways to score.

Through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, Pitt has outscored the opposition, 13-3, with eight different players contributing goals, with 12 of those goals coming by assists.

Central midfielder Ellie Coffield (Mars HS), leads the way with three goals, while Deborah Abiodun and Keera Melenhorst each have two goals.  Creating havoc on the width, it’s Landy Mertz leading the way, posting a tournament-high five assists and counting the ACC tournament, the Upper St. Clair grad has seven assists in Pitt’s six postseason matches.

“Some never would have thought that we would win 4-3 at Arkansas, and 3-0, vs Memphis, and Sarah Schupansky, Samiah (Phiri) wouldn’t score,” Waldurm said. “We played well as a team, and believed we could get a result in those matches. There were some who said that it would be difficult to score against Arkansas, but we scored four goals on them.”

The Panthers have scored in a variety of ways — including a barrage of crosses and corners against Ohio State.  In a wild, back-and-forth match vs Arkansas, Pitt’s early transition goals forced the Razorbacks to tighten things up in the second half, but Pitt kept pressuring a packed box, setting up numerous corners and free kicks — which resulted in Coffield heading in a Sarah Schupansky corner to equalize, then with a little more than a minute left in the match, Coffield converted on a free kick opportunity from 24 yards to give Pitt the win.

What makes the Seminoles So Good? 

FSU coach Brian Pensky, who took over the program in 2022, has spearheaded (okay — some pun intended) one of the best seasons in program history as the ‘Noles have never been undefeated this far into any campaign — and that’s saying something considering this is a program that has won three national titles and has been a regular in the College Cup.

For the ‘Noles, it starts with a letter ne of forwards that feature primarily in 4-3-3- formation who can be a handful to contain, led by seniors Ony Echegini and Jody Brown and dynamic freshman Jordynn Dudley.  Florida State went 17-3-3 in its first year under Pensky, winning the ACC regular-season and tournament titles.

The Florida State attack is paced by a dynamic pairing. Echegini and Dudley are a dangerous duel threat at the top.

Waldrum and Abiodun are very familiar with Echegini, who was also part of Nigeria’s 2023 World Cup squad that made it out of group stage play earlier this Summer. In fact, rumors are swirling that the Senior will be making the move to Europe after the NCAA tournament, as the Nigerian Super Falcons midfielder, is in talks with Serie A club, Juventus over a January move.

Echegini made the All-ACC second team in 2022 after scoring 11 goals with eight assists in her first season since transferring from Mississippi State. This year, London native leads the ACC and ranks 11th nationally in goals scored with 14.

One of the big stories this year for Florida State has been Dudley’s emergence, who has burst onto the scene straight from Cambridge High School in Milton, GA, to score 12 goals and add eight assists.

“They have three or four players who can make a difference, and change a game, even when things aren’t going right,” Waldrum explained.  “That’s what separates them from most every team in the Nation.  Even if you focus and shut them down for most of a match, they can make one play that can change a game around.”

Defensively, the ‘Noles have one of the best stoppers in the land, as Cristina Roque has been a star in goal since her freshman season in 2020 — and has started every match this season. she has experience winning the national championship. In 2022, the senior from Winter Garden was the ACC Goalkeeper of the Year and was named a second-team All-American by College Soccer News and a third-team All-American by United Soccer Coaches.  Roque has posted 12 clean sheets this season, with a goals against average of 0.65, making 34 saves along the way.

FSU’s midfield is equally dynamic, with Mansfield, OH native Taylor Huff joined the program this season after transferring from Tennessee (where she was previously recruited by Pensky), and has added a playmaking presence that has elevated an already dangerous attack. 

This season, Huff, who was ranked Third (overall) on TopDrawer Soccer’s Midseason Top 100 players, has 13 assists, and she also has a knack for scoring big goals.

Against Florida State, opponents can’t sit back and bunker for too long.

Texas learned the hard way on Sunday in the Round of 16.

It didn’t take long for Florida State to make an impression in this game.

In the sixth minute, Dudley was attacking the defense on the edge of the box. The ball was knocked away by Abby Allen.

When they forward quickly, the ‘Noles come hard, and they come fast, and they come in numbers.

Fortunately for FSU, Dudley’s shot ricocheted directly to Jody Brown right outside the box. Brown immediately sent it over to Echegini who was unmarked on the left side. Echegini fired for goal but her shot was saved nicely by former Seminole Mia Justus.

The ball rebounded of Justus’ foot right into the path of a charging Beata Olsson who headed the ball into the open net to give the Noles a 1-0 lead.

And that opened up the floodgates.

Florida State would then score two more times in the next 15 minutes, taking a comfortable 3-0 lead after 20 minutes, giving Texas very little chance to recover.

Sizing Up Pitt vs Florida State Part III 

In the first two matches vs Florida State, Pitt came to play, preventing and denying early Florida State assaults by finding moments on the front foot.

In fact, the Panthers outshot the Seminoles in the first tussle, 8-3, and set up 3-1 edge in corner attempts in the first half, where Pitt did its damage was showing quick strike ability when playing direct, as Katie Zailski headed in a long ball from defender Ashton Gordon.

In both previous matches, despite doing a lot of things right, Pitt were subjected to Florida State’s talented players taking over each match and doing just enough to add second half goals that would be the difference.

“In our first match, Jody Brown took a few players off the dribble, found space, and found Ony (Echegini), who scored on a very difficult shot,” Waldrum pointed out.

“Or you could shut down Dudley for 89 minutes, but she’s so good, she can still find that moment.”

Sure enough, Dudley gave the ‘Noles the lead in that first match, with an overpowering shot.

As has been well documented by their deep tournament run, Pitt can match with firepower of its own and both sides though, come into this match in very good form, and both capable of making this a high scoring affair, so this should be a great match-up between the top scoring team in the nation (FSU 3.25 goals per game) and the 8th best scoring unit (Pitt 2.78 goals per game).

However, Waldrum believes that underlying storyline could come down to how well each team defends.

“These are also two very good defenses,” Waldrum said.  “The answer to who wins this match may come down to who defends better.”

Pitt always look through build-up play to create chances, either through the middle, playing through Phiri, who held her own against Florida State’s back line in both matches, using the width with both West and Mertz drawing defenders.  When they’re bringing pressure deep in the attacking third, they’ve become very good at generating chances from corner kicks and free kicks — as they lead the nation in Corner Kicks attempted.  Mertz (14 assists) and Schupansky (13) are among the leaders in the Nation in assists.

On paper, FSU is the better defensive side (25th in the nation — 13 goals allowed — .650 GAA), but Pitt’s mostly young defense has grown immensely this season, as they’ve been well organized out of the back, with leadership coming from Ashton Gordon anchoring its three in the back, along with strong two-way defensive play from central mids Chloe Minas, Melenhorst and Aboudin, plus Ellie Breech making some big saves,

While both teams will feel certain pressure in this match, Waldrum contends and draws upon past experiences that Florida State, with an unbeaten record and hosting this match, will be feeling the pressure of this big match too.

“Even when I was at Notre Dame, our conference rivals were UConn, and when we played them a third time, after winning twice, it was very, very difficult to win that third time around,” Waldrum explained, then thought about his next opponent.

“They’re under a different kind of pressure.”

Projected Starting Formations / Lineups

PITT 

FSU 

How To Watch Pitt vs Florida State

Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m. and can be seen live on ESPN+ with Shawn Davison (Play By Play) and Trevor DeGroot (Color) on the call.

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).

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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