Soccer: Panthers’ season comes to an end

By Greg Trietley

The Pitt men’s soccer team’s season ended this week with two losses on the road, despite an… The Pitt men’s soccer team’s season ended this week with two losses on the road, despite an offensive surge not often seen from the Panthers this fall.

The Panthers dropped a 6-2 decision at the Georgetown Hoyas (10-4-4, 5-3-1 Big East) Wednesday afternoon and then lost their season finale 1-0 to the Marquette Golden Eagles (9-7-2, 7-2-0 Big East) on Saturday night.

With only two games left in the season, the Panthers entered this week on the brink of elimination from the Big East tournament. While averaging only .82 goals per game, the Panthers needed an offensive improvement to even have a chance at the playoffs. After they scored three goals in their final two games, it was insufficient defense  that kept the Panthers from getting the wins they needed.

In a must-win situation against the Hoyas, Pitt (4-13-1, 2-7-0 Big East) fell behind 2-0 in the first 20 minutes on goals from Georgetown’s sophomore Steve Neumann and freshman Tom Skelly.

The Panthers cut the deficit in half when sophomore forward Nico Wrobel connected with senior Andy Clifford in the 31st minute for Clifford’s second goal this season.

Georgetown out-shot Pitt 12-3 in the first half, but the Hoya offense stagnated coming out of intermission. The Panthers took advantage of the opportunity in the 66th minute when senior Terry Akpua sent a cross to freshman Manny Morgado, who headed in his second goal of 2011 to tie the game.

“When Pitt scored the second goal, you could almost see it coming because we hadn’t been generating anything,” Hoyas head coach Brian Wiese said after the game in a news release on the Georgetown athletics site. “I think the key to this game was how we responded to being tied in a game where we could have put it to bed early in the first half.”

Pitt had not scored two goals in a road game this year. That lack of success prompted head coach Joe Luxbacher to make a change. Luxbacher said he switched to a 4-4-2 system against Georgetown, pushing more offensive players upfield in order to generate a more aggressive attack.

“We tried to play much more direct,” Luxbacher said. “I think it helped us going forward.”

Morgado’s second-half goal, though, woke Georgetown, which responded with four goals in a span of 18 minutes to eliminate Pitt from Big East Championship contention.

“We only scored 14 goals [this season],” Luxbacher said. “That’s not just the strikers. I think we need center people. We need line people who can penetrate on a dribble, and our recruiting is going to go toward that objective.”

Neumann scored in the 70th minute, followed quickly by tallies from Skelly, junior midfielder Ian Christianson and senior forward Uche Onyeador.

Neumann is second in the Big East with 11 goals this season.

The Panthers’ back line was short on players against Georgetown, as both of Pitt’s center backs, Alex Harrison and Robert Iledare, did not play in the second half because of injuries. Harrison also missed the season finale at Marquette.

Senior goalkeeper Hami Kara replaced starter Lee Johnston after Georgetown’s fourth goal. Kara allowed two goals and made one save in 16 minutes of relief.

Kara played again Saturday and made six saves in the loss at first-place Marquette, as he started in goal for the first time since August. The Golden Eagles’ 1-0 win clinched their first ever Blue Division championship.

“We’re definitely on the way to having a program that everyone can be proud of,” Marquette head coach Louis Bennett said after the game in a news release on the school athletics site. “This group has managed to really, really believe, and when you win a championship, it gives you validity to what you’re doing.”

The Golden Eagles finished 3-4-2 in the Big East in 2010 and lost four of their first five games this year.

Senior midfielder Calum Mallace scored the winner for Marquette in the 59th minute. Pitt’s back line cleared a cross from the front of the net, but the ball went to Mallace, who beat Kara inside the left post.

It was Mallace’s third goal this year and the eighth game-winner of his career.

Pitt finished with five shots on goal and 12 overall, but the Panthers will finish this season last in the conference with .82 goals per game, as strong goalkeeping from Marquette junior David Check shut out the Panthers Saturday night.

“We had chances,” Luxbacher said. “Their keeper made a couple huge saves. Marquette was playing for the Big East title … so it was a huge game for them, and our guys battled them to the end. The game could have gone either way.”

Looking ahead to next year, Luxbacher said that his freshmen-heavy core from this fall will help to alleviate the loss of six seniors, but he needs to target some offensively-gifted players on the recruiting trail.

“I think we have a good core, but a year older doesn’t mean a year better,” Luxbacher said. “Guys have to work.”