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Pitt Men's Soccer

With knack for scoring goals, former Pitt standout Valentin Noël shines in his Vegas residency

Photo courtesy Las Vegas Lights

Valentin Noël will face a professional club he’s awfully familiar with, from the city where he played collegiately, when he lines up for Las Vegas Lights when they play host against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (Saturday night, 10:30 ET).

“When I got to (Las) Vegas, first thing I did was check the schedule, to see when we would play the Riverhounds,” Noël said.

Growing up in Niort, France, a town of nearly 60,000 in the Western part of the country, Valentin Noël began playing soccer for Chamois Niortais F.C. in their academy for the U11 team and started training with their first team at the age of 17.

When training with the first team, Noël was being utilized as an outside back, as coaches in France believed that would be the best position for the young player to develop and grow into a potential professional.   Prior to that, through much of his academy career, coaches always recognized his vision and playing well with most of the field in front of him, Noël played as a six, primarily as a defensive, holding midfielder, and even used as a center back.

“I was told by them, that if I wanted to play with them, to sign a professional contract, it would be at right back,” Noël explained about his potential to making his mark with the second division pro club in France.

It was around this time, that Noël decided to change course.

“In my head, I never thought I was a right back,” Noël added.

“I always thought I was a midfielder.”

While still continuing to pursue his dream to become a professional soccer player, Noël sensed there was a better path suited for him.

Looking to further his academics, learn a second language, Noël found an opportunity to come to the United States when University of Pittsburgh Head Coach Jay Vidovich, who was beginning to build Pitt’s program into a National Contender, lured him to come to the Steel City.

When Noël arrived at Pitt in 2019, along with many other talented players from various backgrounds, both from other European countries and the United States, including Arturo Ordonez, Filip Mirkovic and Veljko Petkovic, it was already a program that was starting to become competitive, but still had not become a National Championship contender.

“We were clueless with how things worked in America, and that whole college thing,” Noël remarked.

“We were just a bunch of guys that were trying to play soccer to the best of our ability, and became friends and enjoyed playing together.

In his freshman season, Noël was utilized mostly as a box-to-box midfielder, along side Petkovic, Mirkovic and current Riverhounds midfielder, Jackson Walti, as he appeared and started in 18 games — as things started to come together for the program that took a huge step forward that season. That group’s success included program  firsts — winning a postseason match and landing the program’s first-ever berth and win in the NCAA tournament, thanks in part to very strong young core group of freshman, as Noël along with Ordonez and Petkovic made the All-ACC Freshman team.

Heading into the 2020 season, which was delayed and training interrupted by start the COVID-19 pandemic, and many restrictions that came with it, Noël and many of his teammates scattered for a while, headed back home during a time they would have been training together.

But they always remained close.

The focal point of Pitt’s attack and the team’s leading scorer in 2019 was Edward Kizza.

When Kizza left the Pitt program right before the 2020 season, eventually pursuing the opportunity to go to the pros, where he would land as 2021 MLS SuperDraft selection for New England Revolution, it left a void for a go-to scorer.

When meeting with Vidovich to discuss tactics at that time, Noël shared that he came out and told Vidovich, somewhat jokingly that he could play as a false nine in Pitt’s unique 4-2-4 system.

“I told him, I could play there,” Noël boasted. “He said, yeah, you’re going to play there. I was like, no, are you kidding? I was joking. But he said, no I could really see you there. And that’s how it started. I believe he saw something in me that first year, when I was playing as an eight (box-to-box midfielder), the way I play the game, it would work well.”

Along with a number of talented players who are also now playing in the pros, Noël became the leading scorer on a team that would make two NCAA Division I College Cup appearances and capture a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division regular season championships.

The 2020 campaign proved to be a breakout one for Noël.

With ACC teams playing both a Fall and Spring season, Noël thrived in Pitt’s system, with speedy and talented wingers and talented play makers in the midfield, including fellow countryman Bertin Jacquesson emerging as a freshman on the right side, and Alexander Dexter on the left. Noël totaled eight goals and two assists during the fall season and six goals during the spring campaign as he emerged as a finalist for prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy award while leading Pitt to the ACC Tournament Final and helping earn the program’s first-ever Number One overall seeding in the NCAA tournament, where they would make a run to the College Cup, before losing to Indiana.

“With Bertin on the right, Alexander on the left, players we had in the middle, it just matched,” Noël said.  “The coordination of the team was fluid and it worked for the team.”

The next two seasons, the success continued Noël and his close band of brothers at Pitt, as they remained a Top 10 program, making it to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2021, and back to the College Cup in 2022.  In his senior campaign, he found a resurgence that fueled Pitt’s second College Cup run, always seeminging finding his way in scoring clutch goals.

Valentin Noel’s scoring resurgence fuels Pitt’s postseason aspirations

French native recorded 11 goals and three (3) assists, scoring a massive goal in the Elite Eight win against Portland at Ambrose Urbanic Field that December.

“Jay and coaching staff have ability to get best out of you,” Noel once told Pittsburgh Soccer Now. “They always try to find something where you need to impove and evaluate what you are doing and what you can do better in the next game.”

Over the course of his collegiate career, Noël will go down as one of the best to wear a Pitt jersey as he wraps up his career ranked second in program history in goals (35) and third in points (83). The senior also led all active ACC players this year in career shots (171), points (83) and goals (35).

“My time at Pitt helped me become a better human being, but also a better soccer player,” Noël, who also became the first player in Pitt men’s soccer to earn First Team Scholar All-American honors, explained.

Pitt’s Valentin Noel becomes first in program history to earn First Team Scholar All-American honors

In 2023, Noël got the call up to become the first SuperDraft selection to earn minutes with the MLS first team.

Noël saw that dream come true when he was selected in Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft by Austin FC in January 2023.  One of his closest friends and teammates, Walti, was also drafted by Austin, and they were teammates on the organization’s MLS Next Pro side, Austin FC II, as they would be part of a team that would capture the league title.

A clever attacking midfielder with a knack for scoring goals, Noël has thrived through his first season, making 30 appearances for Austin FC II, recording eight (8) goals and four (4) assists.

At one point in 2023, he also caught some time with the first team.

“I’m proud,” said Noël on getting his first minutes with Austin FC.

“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a while and getting a chance to play at a special stadium with a special atmosphere was a big moment of pride. I have close ones and family that have been following me on my path and it’s not an easy path but it’s only the beginning. It’s one step out of plenty of other ones but I’m extremely happy for the opportunity.”

Earlier this year, Noël was tranferred from Austin FC to USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights, where he landed with a club that was going through a complete overhual, with a new owner (ironically former Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Jose Bautista), new management and a new coach, Dennis Sánchez, looking to pick up the pieces after an awful 2023 season which brought only three wins in 34 matches.

It was Sánchez who knew what Noël could do at this level, having been an assistant with Austin FC II the previous season, and he worked out a deal to bring the Frenchman to Vegas.

“It’s similiar to when I first got to Pitt,” Noël remarked.  “We’re starting from scratch. This club hit rock bottom. We are all new here, and there’s only one guy that was here last year.  The rest, are entirely new.  I was in a situation in Austin where I was a little stuck, struggling with International spot, dealing with green card issue, while I was doing the right thing performing (on the field), so I had to find another option for me. And, I was fortunate, that I have a coach (Sánchez) who brought me over with him, who knows me, trusts me.”

Noël signed with Las Vegas right before the start of the season.

“The first day I arrived, it was a Tuesday, and I was in the lineup on Saturday without having much of a clue of who was on the team,” Noël explained about the whirlwind start with his new club.

“It took us a little bit of time to understand each other. What the coach wanted — and our principles.”

Through 16 matches, Noël has reinforced his trust from his coach, as he has emerged as the club’s scoring leader with seven goals and a pair of assists, as the Lights are unbeaten in their last five league matches, and are battling right on the playoff line in USL Championship’s Western Conference.

“There’s a lot about what we can do here, that has made this move exciting,” Noël pointed out about the potential his new club has to emerge with fans in the City of Lights.

On Saturday night, Noël will face a professional club he’s awfully familiar with, in the city where he played collegiately, when he lines up against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

There will be a few familiar faces on the other side, including his former teammates Kizza, who he essentially replaced as Pitt’s go-to scorer, and one of his best friends and teammate for four years, and fellow SuperDraft selection with Austin FC, midfielder Jackson Walti.

In fact, Noël acknowledged that while he’s looking forward to seeing some of his good friends when they land in Las Vegas, it will be all business when they face each other on Saturday night when they meet at Cashman Stadium on the edge of Strip in Downtown Vegas.

“They’re going to be a very tough opponent,” Noël said.

“They’re always a team that comes to play. If you look at the table, both teams are struggling, and I don’t think the Riverhounds are where they should be.  If you look at their stats, and their games. They should have scored more. Got more points, but that’s the reality of the game.”

 

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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