Soccer: Panthers get first win in Johnston’s goalie debut

By Greg Trietley

Panther freshman Lee Johnston’s first career start in goal for the Pitt men’s soccer team… Panther freshman Lee Johnston’s first career start in goal for the Pitt men’s soccer team couldn’t have gone any better.

Johnston’s shutout Friday night gave Pitt its first win of the season, as the team defeated Stony Brook 1-0 at the Duquesne Invitational. Led by Johnston’s goalkeeping and two goals from sophomore Nico Wrobel, the Panthers (1-2-1) left Pittsburgh 1-0-1 in the tournament and feeling much better about themselves after a rocky start to the year that included a 2-1 loss to Robert Morris and a 3-0 loss to St. Francis.

“Things can change from game to game, but right now Lee’s playing well and the team is playing well behind him,” head coach Joe Luxbacher said after Sunday’s game, a 1-1 tie with Valparaiso. “So obviously we stick with Lee.”

The team relied on significant minutes from  Johnston and four other freshmen against Stony Brook and Valparaiso, as they have for much of this year. Johnston made seven saves in the first half Friday against Stony Brook (0-1-2), as the Seawolves out-shot Pitt 12-7 and out-cornered them 5-0 before intermission.

Stony Brook finished with impressive stat lines — 19 shots and 11 corner kicks — but in the 59th minute the Panthers jumped on their chance to take control. Wrobel buried a rebound into the net from senior Terry Akpua’s shot past Seawolves junior goalkeeper Stefan Manz for the eventual game-winning goal.

Wrobel accounted for Pitt’s offense again Sunday afternoon, as he scored the Panthers’ lone goal in the draw with Valparaiso (1-1-1). Wrobel converted a penalty kick in the 20th minute to put his team up 1-0.

“He’s been very, very important to the offense,” Akpua said after the game. “He’s been working hard. He’s a huge part of our offense for sure.”

Two of Wrobel’s three goals this season have been on penalty kicks. He has scored every Panthers goal of the regular season.

“We need to score more goals on the field, obviously, not just on penalties,” Luxbacher said.

Although Pitt’s offense hasn’t created and converted as many chances as it would like, senior defender Shane Flowers said that the forwards and midfielders have been riding strong defensive play. .

“It all really starts up top,” he said after Sunday’s game. “I thought we got pressure from our forwards, and our midfielders were a lot better. We checked our man, and that helped us out on the defense … and helped us reduce shots on net.”

The Panthers defense stymied the Crusaders for most of Sunday’s game, allowing just one shot on goal in the game’s first 70 minutes. But Valparaiso only needed a second shot on target to knot the game at one, when the Crusaders’ sophomore Todd Vervynckt put one past Johnston in the 73rd minute.

“It was a set piece,” Flowers said. “They played a long ball in, and the defender came in and tried cutting up the pass, and the offender just had a little bit of time … just a little miscommunication there.”

In overtime, Pitt’s Daniel Mark had a chance to win the game from close range, but his shot sailed high.

“We definitely made strides forward,” Luxbacher said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get the result. We had the 1-0 lead and gave up the tying goal. And then we had a chance in overtime — ball’s sitting on the 5-yard line, open net, hit it over top.”

Valparaiso out-cornered Pitt 10-1 on Sunday. The Panthers surrendered 21 corner kicks at the invitational while taking only two.

“What we’re not doing is getting wide play and getting in behind their defense,” Luxbacher said. “That’s what usually results in corner kicks … They have to get it out and they put it over the goal line for a corner [kick]. On the other end, we’ve been too passive defensively on the wide areas. We’re letting players get wide on us defensively.”

Flowers said that the margin of corner kicks, while not flattering, is better than some alternatives.

“The formations that we’re playing, the formations that the other teams are playing, you get a lot of 1-v-1s,” he said. “Rather than give a shot on net, you want to block it, and usually that leads to corners. It would be nice to reduce our corners and reduce the hassle of always coming back and worrying about set pieces.”

Flowers said the younger players showed improvement at the invitational.

“Definitely the freshmen came in and played a big role and helped us out there,” he said. “We’re still playing to figure out different formations and different positions for each player, but I think now we’re starting to mesh a lot better and trying to play as a team.”

Flowers added that Johnston, one of those freshmen, hasn’t looked out of place in his first regular-season collegiate action.

“Coming in as a freshman, it’s always nervous playing in the Big East,” he said. “He’s done well.”