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Men’s soccer shows progress, but faces tough competition ahead

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The Pitt men's soccer team is now 6-5-0 with two wins against ranked teams.
(Thomas Yang / Staff Photographer)

The Pitt men's soccer team is now 6-5-0 with two wins against ranked teams. (Thomas Yang / Staff Photographer)

The Pitt men's soccer team is now 6-5-0 with two wins against ranked teams. (Thomas Yang / Staff Photographer)

By Dominic Campbell | Staff Writer

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When Pitt men’s soccer beat No. 21 Syracuse 2-1 at home on Friday, it was a historic win. The Panthers recorded their first ever ACC win since joining the conference in 2013. Then, they doubled down Tuesday, snagging a 1-0 win against another ranked team —  No. 14 Columbia.

These wins are a source of motivation for the team as they look to turn around a program that struggled since joining the ACC. The Panthers had a dreadful record of 2-13-3 and a 0-6-2 ACC conference record — and a whopping 13 of their losses were shutouts.

Last year was the first chance for new head coach Jay Vidovich to prove his reputation as a winning coach. He failed to do that in 2016, but now — with a class of his own recruits — Pitt fans are seeing what gave him that reputation.

Previously at Wake Forest for 21 years, he won the NSCAA National Coach of the Year in 2007 and 2008 and was named ACC Coach of the Year five times.

As coach of the Demon Deacons, he helped them become one of the best college soccer teams in the country. In his time there, he had a record of 272-121-50 and was able to recruit well and develop great players.

With a new class recruited by Vidovich and his staff — and a whole season to work with them — the Panthers have begun to play some better soccer.

A number of the new Panther recruits have already stepped up to take control of the pitch — notably Colin Brezniak, Alexander Dexter and Edward Kizza.

Bringing clean play to the offense, Brezniak has started in five games out of 10 so far, netting three goals in crucial wins against Longwood, Robert Morris and Syracuse. Dexter — who came through the elite German academy team FK Pirmasens — has done the same, scoring the winning goal away in a 1-0 win over Loyola Maryland, and also had a goal and two assists in the 7-0 blowout of West Virginia. He was also instrumental in the Panthers’ 1-0 win against Columbia on Tuesday.

Then there is leading scorer, Kizza — who hails from Uganda and played for Florida powerhouse Montverde Academy in high school — and has three goals in the last two games against WVU and Syracuse. He also found the back of the net in the Panthers’ loss versus a tough North Carolina team. As a true freshman who has the highest scoring record on the team this season so far, he has given the Panthers the push they need to attack the goal.

 

Head Coach Jay Vidovich has been working toward rebuilding and improving his team since before the season began. (Photo courtesy of Pitt Athletics)

On defense, Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Mikal Outcalt played well in his first year as a starter for the Panthers. He already has three clean sheets on the year and his highest goal total allowed in a game was two against Wake Forest.

Despite these strong performances, the season has still been up and down for the Panthers. Hoping for a good start to the season at the Wolstein Classic in Columbus, Ohio, the Panthers instead found themselves with an 0-2 start, losing both games 1-0 to Ohio State and James Madison.

Pitt bounced back in the next two games, winning at home against Longwood 2-1 and 1-0 at Loyola Maryland.

The Panthers then started to play some of their toughest competitors in the ACC. And like the previous few years, they struggled against the ACC competition, losing 2-1 to North Carolina, 2-0 to Wake Forest and 3-0 to Clemson.

It wasn’t surprising to see the Panthers struggle against these teams. All three are ranked in the top 25 and in the most recent U.S. coaches poll. The top competition in the ACC is a tough setting for a rebuilding Pitt team. Seven out of the 12 teams are ranked in the coaches’ poll and in the ACC Coastal division — Pitt and Virginia Tech are among the five unranked teams.

The schedule ahead for the Panthers doesn’t favor them much, either. Three of the next seven teams they face are ranked in the top 25 — No. 19 Duke, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 11 Virginia.

The only game Pitt will have a good chance to win will be against Penn State (2-6-2), but that will still be a tough, rivalrous game and the Panthers will have to play well against the Nittany Lions.

Pitt will have to rely on all players to really show up for games. The defense needs to solidify if Pitt even wants to stand a chance. Seniors Mauriq Hill, Matt Bischoff, Pol Planellas and Bryce Cregan will need to shore up the back and keep the team focused and under control.

If history indicates anything, the Panthers will be defeated in most of the games they have left in their schedule. They have 16 consecutive losing seasons and a 17th this year wouldn’t be unlikely with the difficult opponents they will face.

But this Pitt team has done much better these last few games. Besides the Clemson game in which they lost 3-0, they have kept the other games close and competitive. They can prove the doubters wrong by picking up some wins — especially in the ACC.

As they continue to work toward a winning season that will turn the program around, the team will need to stay on top of scoring and keep their defense strong. Up next, the Panthers take on the Duke Blue Devils Friday night at Ambrose Urbanic Field at 7 p.m, where they can put their winning streak to the test.

 

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Men’s soccer shows progress, but faces tough competition ahead