Soccer: Men, women’s team wrap up spring season

By Greg Trietley

Injuries plagued both the Pitt men and women’s soccer team this spring season, but it gave… Injuries plagued both the Pitt men and women’s soccer team this spring season, but it gave both teams the opportunity to develop experience heading into next fall’s season.

The men’s team tested players in different positions to see how they would play, while the women’s team was forced to start all 11 of its rostered players. Both head coaches for the teams said that while the injuries were unfortunate, now the teams know where they stand as they prepare for next season.

The teams concluded spring play last Saturday, as they finished an exhibition schedule in their new stadium, the Petersen Sports Complex.

While both teams experienced injuries, the women’s team seemed able to persevere past them more easily than the men.

Although it played the majority of the spring with just 11 players — meaning, it had no substitutes — the women had a dominate record, at 4-0-1.

“You’d like things to go one way, but you just got to do the best with what you have, and I think we did that this spring,” head coach SueMoy Chin said in an interview Monday. “We would have liked some different things. I would have liked to see some combinations — whether it’s at forward or in the midfield — but we didn’t have the players to do that.”

Despite injuries, the women’s team still took positives away from the situation.

“We got a couple of girls back from injury in the last game — but to play 90 minutes with 11 girls, our fitness was really good,” Chin said. “We had girls playing out of position in order to play.”

The lack of depth gave younger players such as midfielder Danielle Benner, forward Morgan Masci and defender Alyssa Meier a chance to gain valuable on-field experience.

“It helps in their development to get that experience,” Chin said. “It allows them to show us what they can bring to the program. The competition was good. It wasn’t Big East opponents, but it’s still important to get that experience.”

Perhaps the biggest change from last fall to this spring and beyond is in goal. Morie Kephart — the school’s all-time wins and shutouts leader — graduated, so the largely untested Kristina Rioux played most of this month’s exhibition games.

“She’s been training behind Morie for the past three years, so it was good for her to get some action in the net and some playing time,” Chin said. “It helps build her confidence. It’s different from just training, to apply it to a game.”

The Panthers shut out four of their five opponents this spring. Only Duquesne cracked their defense, but Pitt still won 5-2.

“We definitely made some mistakes, but I think we’re a little bit more seasoned now,” Chin said. “Our understanding got a lot better in the attack with our possession, but our decision-making needs to be better. I think that’s youth — understanding different playing situations and different pressure.”

But while the women finished undefeated despite the injuries, the men’s team had more trouble adjusting to the change.

“We didn’t get done what we hoped in the spring mainly because of injuries,” men’s head coach Joe Luxbacher said.

Luxbacher used the spring to try players at new positions. The Panthers had to replace departing defenders Connor Malone and Andy Kalas, and Luxbacher was creative in doing so. He shifted Robert Iledare — previously a forward — to the back line.

“We wanted to get an idea going into the fall — a very good idea — of who our back line would be,” Luxbacher said in an interview Tuesday. “[Iledare] is a big, strong, skilled athlete, and I thought maybe he’d be a good fit to play in the back. He did a pretty solid job.”

Goalkeepers Keegan Gunderson and Matt Aberegg missed time with concussions, which gave tryout player Mark Hast several starts.

Luxbacher also considered Mike Whitaker at center back, shifted defender Alex Harrison up to midfield and tried Alex Fischetti at right back. Fischetti split time between the back line and midfield last season before a concussion cut it short.

“We’re going to play a bit different system next fall,” Luxbacher said. “We’re looking at that this spring.”

That system — which the team started to use toward the end of last year — is a 4-3-3, in which the Panthers will play three forwards instead of two. With the change, the men’s team finished spring play 2-2-2 and held the opposition to three goals in six games.

Yet, like last year, the Panthers created chances but struggled to find the back of the net.

“We need to put the ball in the goal,” midfielder Ryan Brode said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve been pretty good defensively, but offensively, we really haven’t been able to find our rhythm.”

Luxbacher was impressed with how the adjustments went even though it didn’t show on the scoreboard. Pitt played the Pittsburgh Riverhounds — a local professional team — to open the exhibition season and matched them chance-for-chance until the Riverhounds scored a late goal to win 1-0.

“We played pretty well,” Luxbacher said. “We had chances. They’re definitely a Big East-caliber outfit. They’re a professional group.”

The scores of the games mean little in the long run, as Pitt’s spring lineup won’t resemble the final fall team. The Panthers have eight recruits arriving for training camp in August.

The men’s and women’s teams have already adjusted to the new synthetic turf at their new stadium, which allows for crisper passes than the grass at Founders Field.

“I think it stood out the first game,” Chin said. “We moved the ball around really well. Our possession was probably the best I’ve seen it in a game, and I think that has a lot to do with the surface we’re playing on.”

Both Chin and Luxbacher said that the move to campus helps them in every aspect of the program — from training to recruiting to playing.

“It allows you to play better soccer,” Luxbacher said. “You can really use skill more. When you play on a field like Founders, especially late in the season, it’s muddy and heavy. You can’t play the same way you do when the surface is good.”