Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer
The No. 1 Pitt men’s soccer program (13-3, 9-2) waited 54 years between its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1965 and its return trip in 2019. The current wait to book the Panthers’ official bid — stretched by the COVID-caused postponement from fall to spring — will be extended by a few more days after the Panthers (13-3, 9-2) fell to No. 4 Clemson (13-3-2, 8-3-2) 2-0, the team’s second loss of the season to the Tigers. The ACC’s automatic qualifier play-in game Saturday night took place at Clemson’s Historic Riggs Field.
The Tigers triumphed last fall 2-1 in the ACC Tournament final, a victory that assured them home-field advantage in this play-in game for the ACC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Sixth-year head coach Jay Vidovich and his squad earned another shot at ACC glory as winners of the conference’s Coastal division, but will have to bide their time until the NCAA’s selection show this Monday, April 19, to learn its official postseason destiny.
Clemson also played foil to the Panthers’ ACC dreams in that 2019 season, sending them home in the conference tournament semifinal with a 1-0 win.
The Panthers started the game on the front foot with bright play highlighted by a shot from the ACC’s Freshman of the Year Bertin Jacquesson tipped over the crossbar by Tigers’ netminder George Marks in the 15th minute.
Clemson, however, took the lead off an in-swinging free kick in the 17th minute knocked down by Pitt senior defenseman Bryce Washington Jr. to an unmarked redshirt junior midfielder Quinn McNeill, who promptly fired home to open the scoring. The Tigers nearly doubled their advantage after a giveaway by Pitt goalkeeper Nico Campuzano led to a near score with the ball rebounding off the bar and a Pitt defender before the graduate student collected it to prevent further damage.
Both teams looked to speedy transition play and opportunities on the break, but the 1-0 scoreline held at halftime — a sign of good fortune for Clemson, who held a record of 75-5-4 when leading at the break under head coach Mike Noonan coming into this match.
Perhaps the hottest moment of the first 45 minutes came just after the whistle, with Pitt sophomore midfielder Velkjo Petkovic taking offense at a comment made by a Clemson player while Petkovic was down on the pitch, needing to be held back by his teammates on their way to the locker rooms.
McNeill’s goal served as the difference between the teams for the next 66 minutes as the Panther’s potent offense — best in the nation in goals and best in conference in goals — controlled the majority of the game. Clemson’s well-organized defensive structure and pressing prevented Pitt from finding any offensive rhythm, holding the Panthers to a clean sheet for just the second time this season.
Pitt’s best chances offensively came off two crosses from Jacquesson and senior forward Alexander Dexter, both finding first-year midfielder Filip Mirkovic, who couldn’t get a clean shot off either time, leaving the chances squandered. Both teams offered 11 shots, but Clemson found the better chances with six on goal and just three for the Panthers.
The Tigers got a late insurance goal in the 82nd minute off a first-touch strike from the left foot of sophomore defender Isaiah Reed that beat Campuzano at the near post and secured Clemson’s place as the ACC champions.
Should the Panthers indeed earn an at-large bid Monday, it would mark the first time in program history the Panthers appeared in consecutive NCAA Tournaments and the fourth appearance for the program as well.