Preview: Panthers’ offensive firepower to overpower shaky Hokies

For+the+second+time+this+season+and+third+time+in+the+last+three+years%2C+No.+1+Pitt+men%E2%80%99s+soccer+fell+to+No.+4+Clemson.

Sam Alburger | Staff Photographer

For the second time this season and third time in the last three years, No. 1 Pitt men’s soccer fell to No. 4 Clemson.

By Dalton Coppola, Staff Writer

Pitt men’s soccer looks to build upon their 4-3 double-overtime win over Duke last week against the unranked Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg. Pitt got off to a slow start to its spring slate, squeaking by Duquesne before getting shut out by North Carolina and only managing to score one goal in a win over Boston College.

The Panthers ended their fall season ranked as the No. 2 team in the nation, but have since fallen to No. 5 thanks to lackluster offensive performances in each of the first three games — uncharacteristic of the Panthers, who lead the nation with 29 goals this year.

It seemed as if the Panthers had left their high-scoring offense in 2020 until the team exploded for four goals last weekend against Duke. Star sophomore forward Valentin Noel had stayed relatively quiet for much of the spring season before sending two balls into the back of the net against the Blue Devils — earning him Co-Offensive ACC Player of the Week honors.

Noel served as the backbone of the Panther offense in their historic run this past fall with a team- and nation-leading eight goals. Noel failed to add to his goal total in the first three games of the spring — and the Panthers felt it. He woke up from what seemed like an elongated hibernation into the spring last week, and the Panthers hope to see his success carry over this weekend against the Hokies. When Noel is on his game, opponents haven’t stood a chance.

The Panthers and the Hokies met once in the fall, a game in which Noel scored twice for a 4-2 victory. But head coach Jay Vidovich felt that the game was much closer than the score indicated, citing many good looks on net for the Hokies and Pitt’s struggles to maintain possession of the ball.

The game wound up as an offensive contest, with each squad ripping plenty of shots on net. It came down to which goaltender could make more saves than the other — Pitt graduate student Nico Campuzano won the battle of the goaltenders, saving six shots.

Since the teams’ first meeting, the Hokies sport an underwhelming record of 4-5-2 and have dropped three straight games. The strong offense the Panthers witnessed firsthand in October seems to have disappeared, as the team has failed to score more than three goals in a game all season long. The shortage of goals doesn’t come from a lack of shots, but rather the lack of clean looks on net with just over a third of shots coming on target in a loss against Virginia. The Hokies own a negative goal differential against opponents at -.46. The stout Panther back line, led by senior defender Bryce Washington, will be one of the Hokies’ toughest challenges yet this spring — they’ve only allowed 1.5 goals per game.

Another eye-opening statistic — the Hokies have yet to win a game on their own turf, sporting a 0-2-2 record at home. It’s Senior Day for the Hokies in Blacksburg, and it sure would be a night to remember if the Hokies could halt their recent woes and upset the Panthers for that elusive win at Thompson Field.

Although the allure of Senior Day may add motivation for the Hokies, the Panthers seem to just have gotten into their rhythm. According to head coach Jay Vidovich, the Panthers have started to hit their stride mentally and physically and look to carry this over onto the field. Vidovich believes last week’s win served as a prime example of the team displaying great mental toughness.

Our preparation for the match this week was fantastic and our mental toughness is coming through again,Vidovich said. “Everybody did their part and stayed true to themselves, believed and took it to the end.”

Prediction

The recipe for a Panther victory is simple — get Noel the ball early and often and continue to play strong defense against a weak Virginia Tech offense. 

The Panthers will come out firing, looking to put pressure on the Hokie defense. If the Panthers can control the ball, which they should against the subpar Hokie defense, expect the offense to get some good chances early for Noel.

Once the offense jumps out to a lead, the Panthers will inevitably regress to playing keep away from the Hokies. The strong Panther defense will simply prove too much for the Hokies to handle and will fail to gain solid looks. Even if the defense has a few lapses, expect Campuzano to remain hot in net for the Panthers.

If Pitt can adhere to this blueprint, expect the Panthers to stomp the Hokies this weekend, with impressive showings on both sides of the ball.

Final: Pitt: 3, VT: 0

The Panthers and Hokies kick off at 1 p.m. in Blacksburg Saturday on ACCNX.

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