Panthers fighting Irish in first round of ACC Tournament


First-year forward Alexander Dexter plays in a home match against Virginia Tech Friday night. (Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer)

By Trent Leonard | Staff Writer

When Pitt men’s soccer last faced Notre Dame, the Panthers marched into South Bend and pulled off a shocking 1-0 upset, handing the No. 7 Fighting Irish their lone home loss of the year. The victory marked the Panthers’ first win over a top-10 opponent since 2000.

Pitt (8-9 overall, 2-6 ACC) must duplicate that feat Wednesday if they wish to advance to the second round of the ACC tournament for the first time in school history. The Panthers drew a 10th seed in the competitive ACC Tournament, setting up a rematch at seventh-seeded Notre Dame (9-5-2 overall, 3-3-2 ACC) in the first round.

It’s no secret that the ACC is the most competitive conference in college soccer — seven of the top 11 teams in the nation are in the ACC, and all 12 of its teams are ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Power Index.

In the 12-team tournament bracket, conference behemoths Wake Forest, North Carolina, Louisville and Duke — ranked first, second, third and fourth in the nation, respectively — will receive first round byes.

Wake Forest will look to defend its 2016 ACC title and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the 48-team NCAA Soccer Division I Men’s Soccer Championship tournament. There will be 24 conference champions across the nation that qualify automatically, while a committee will select the remaining half of the teams based on record, strength of schedule and improvement throughout the season.

Since Pitt’s chances of running the ACC gauntlet are slim, the Panthers’ national tournament chances depend heavily on their upcoming matchup. Despite Pitt’s losing record, the team’s formidable season play, which includes victories over three ranked teams, places the Panthers at 24th in the RPI rankings.

A second-road win against top-notch Notre Dame would be a highlight of Pitt’s tournament  résumé, while a first-round conference tournament exit would most likely end the Panthers’ season.

The momentum surrounding Pitt is far different from what it was prior to its previous match with Notre Dame. Entering that game, the Panthers had won four of their previous five games, including wins over ranked Syracuse and Columbia teams.

However, since that Oct. 13 shutout victory over the Fighting Irish, the Panthers have not won a game. They’ve gone ice cold, dropping their last three matches, including two demoralizing 3-0 losses to end the season.

If the Panthers are to topple Notre Dame, they will need another stifling performance from their experienced back line, led by seniors Mauriq Hill, Matt Bischoff and Bryce Cregan, as well as redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Mikal Outcalt.

Pitt’s offense is not equipped to trade blows in a high-scoring affair — the Panthers scored more than three goals only once this season. Their senior-laden defense contrasts with their youthful offense, led by first-year forwards Alexander Dexter and Edward Kizza. Junior midfielder Javi Perez, the Panthers’ leader in assists, will look to create quality opportunities for Dexter and Kizza in what figures to be a low-scoring endeavor.

Similarly to Pitt, Notre Dame prides itself on defense. The Fighting Irish have allowed an average of one goal per game. The Panther defense will have to focus on containing Fighting Irish senior Jon Gallagher, who paced the Notre Dame attack with a whopping 10 goals this season.

Kizza’s lone goal was the deciding factor in the first meeting, and this rematch should follow a similar theme. In a matchup where Pitt averages 1.24 goals per game and Notre Dame 1.38, whichever team gets on the scoreboard first will likely emerge victorious.

The winner of Wednesday’s game will travel to North Carolina for a second-round matchup versus the second-seeded Tar Heels.

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