Men’s Soccer: Panthers fighting to stay alive

By Greg Trietley

Mired in a four-game losing streak, the Pitt men’s soccer team is hitting the road for its… Mired in a four-game losing streak, the Pitt men’s soccer team is hitting the road for its last two regular season games with a dim hope of making the playoffs.

The Panthers (4-11-1, 2-5-0 Big East) take on the Georgetown Hoyas (9-3-4, 4-2-1 Big East) Wednesday at 2 p.m. at North Kehoe Field in Washington, D.C., and then travel to Wisconsin to play the Marquette Golden Eagles (8-6-2, 6-1-0 Big East) Saturday at 7 p.m. in both teams’ regular season finale.

Pitt must win both contests and hope that sixth-place Notre Dame does no better than 0-2-1 in its last three games in order for the Panthers to qualify for the Big East Championship.

“We still got two games left, six points left on the table,” Pitt midfielder Andy Clifford said Saturday. “Hopefully we run the table and make a run at the Big East.”

The Panthers found themselves on the outside of the postseason looking in after losing to the Fighting Irish 3-1 on senior night Saturday. Pitt freshman Dan Prete scored his first career goal in the final minute, but sophomore Harrison Shipp scored twice for Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish moved four points clear of Pitt in the standings.

The Panthers had chances to score early but couldn’t bury them, and then faded as Notre Dame picked up its game late in the first half, scoring twice.

Pitt forward Terry Akpua said after the game that his team needs to carry the play for a full 90 minutes, not just for part of the game.

“We need to play like we played in the first half, and just keep playing hard,” Akpua said.

Akpua admitted that the Panthers struggle to find motivation once they fall behind in games. Pitt allowed three goals in a span of 15 minutes against Notre Dame.

Pitt head coach Joe Luxbacher, whose team was outshot 24-7, said the Panthers need to stop playing so passively on offense.

“We need to shoot the ball. Early on we had some chances that we just passed up,” he said after the game. “We are too negative in our play. We’re constantly stressing to play the ball forward unless you can’t, and too many times we played the balls back when we don’t have to, and all that does is let [the opponent] get organized defensively.”

Prete’s goal — a long, high shot from far outside the box — broke a 363-minute scoring drought for the Panthers in the 90th minute.

“Good things happen when you put the ball on net. We frankly haven’t been doing that,” Clifford said.

That has been easier said than done for Luxbacher’s Panthers though.

“We’ve been harping on that since the season began, but it’s tough to change the nature of how a guy plays,” Luxbacher said. “The mentality that we need to be a good attacking team … we don’t show it.”

Pitt averages 0.73 goals per game, the worst average in the Big East. The Panthers are the only team in the conference to average less than one goal per game.

Wednesday’s opponent, Georgetown, is second in the conference to Connecticut in goals-against average (0.75). Freshman goalkeeper Tomas Gomez has started 15 of the Hoyas’ 16 contests this year.

Lost in Pitt’s struggles is the dazzling play of freshman goalkeeper Lee Johnston. Despite allowing three goals Saturday, Johnston made 11 saves and sits second in the Big East with a .833 save percentage.

Gomez is third with a .824 save percentage. He enters Wednesday’s game coming off a 0-0 shutout at Connecticut, the No. 1 team in the country, on Saturday.

Pitt’s last opponent on the fall schedule, Marquette, has surprised the Big East by surging to first in the Blue Division. The Golden Eagles went 3-4-2 in the conference in 2010 but timely scoring gave them wins at home over Rutgers, Notre Dame and West Virginia this season.

Marquette is third in the conference with 1.62 goals per game. James “C.” Nortey leads the team with nine goals in 16 games, and the Golden Eagles have already clinched a spot in the Big East Championship.