From Brazil to Pittsburgh, Rodrigo Almeida embodies Pitt’s vision of a soccer program


Patrick Cavanagh | Staff Photographer

Pitt’s Rodrigo Almeida prepares to kick the ball at a game against the University of Massachusetts at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Monday.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

The Pitt men’s soccer coaching staff had a set of goals throughout the team’s rise to national relevancy, including to instill a culture of players who are dedicated to the game, their academics, and those who look to set an example for those after them.

“We are a blue-collar team in a blue-collar city,” Pitt assistant coach Michael Behonick said. “We rely on the hard work of all of our team and staff, and we can pass that vision onto the younger guys that are here.”

Senior midfielder Rodrigo Almeida is no exception.

A native of Salvador, Brazil, Almeida picked up soccer at a young age. The game was a part of Almieda’s life in his youth and he grew to love it more as he got older.

“In Brazil, soccer is really big,” Almeida said. “Anywhere you go, soccer is there. According to my dad, since I started walking, I started kicking a ball.”

Even in the talented Brazilian soccer pool, Almeida started making a name for himself. Soon after, he realized he could make the game more than just a fun hobby.

“I started taking it a little more seriously when I saw it could be something good for the future,” Almeida said. “From then on, I just kept working.”

Almeida first came to the United States at age 15 as an exchange student at Montverde Academy, located about 30 minutes west of Orlando, Florida. Almeida’s initial plan was to go to school and play soccer in America for a year, before returning to Brazil and finishing out his education there.

But as Almeida’s time at Montverde Academy progressed, he grew to enjoy American culture. Almeida was faced with a potentially life-altering decision — whether to stay in the United States or return to Brazil after his exchange ended.

As someone who was passionate about both athletics and getting an education, the idea of playing collegiate soccer in the United States intrigued Almeida. Soon enough, he made the decision to stay and become a full-time student at Montverde Academy. 

“It was a pretty quick decision,” Almeida said. “I don’t know how much my parents regret their decision of bringing me here since I decided to stay and they’re still in Brazil … I saw the opportunity to play college soccer, to get a scholarship and play while I get my education … so I had to stay.”

Behonick introduced Almeida to Pitt during his senior year of high school, and talked to Almeida and two of his teammates after a practice. 

“We went to the coach’s office and just had a meeting with him to introduce Pitt to us,” Almeida said. “That was the first contact I had with Pitt personally.”

Behonick was immediately drawn to Almeida’s game. The young midfielder’s ability to possess and effectively move the ball and create opportunities caught the Pitt coach’s eye. The Pitt staff also saw Almeida’s potential to play a variety of roles within their scheme.

“I remember Rodrigo as being a guy who was very good on the ball,” Behonick said. “He was able to play with the ball under pressure, create chances for his teammates and push the final pass.”

Pitt Head Coach Jay Vidovich has become very familiar with Montverde Academy over the years. Vidovich has recruited several players from the school and developed a rapport with the coaching staff.

“One of my friends is a Brazilian who was working at that time with Montverde helping boys find places,” Vidovich said. “I’ve always trusted him for players and he told me about Rodrigo.”

Vidovich eventually offered Almeida a scholarship to Pitt, which the forward accepted. Being able to continue playing the game he loved while still getting an education was something that Almeida valued and was one of the reasons he was drawn to Pittsburgh. The young player saw this as a one-of-a-kind opportunity — one that he would not have been afforded if he had stayed in Brazil.

“The idea of college sports, as big as it is in the U.S. — I don’t think it exists anywhere else in the world,” Almeida said. “In Brazil, once you get to a certain point, you have to make the decision as to if you want to study or you want to play — it’s really, really difficult to do both.”

Almeida arrived at Pitt in 2018, a year after the team went 2-6 in ACC play. The Panthers posted the same conference record during the 2018 regular season, but advanced in the postseason. Almeida and the Panthers won their first ACC tournament game in program history after knocking off Virginia in the first round by a score of 2-0 — a checkpoint towards national relevancy.

“We weren’t a big program at all when I came here,” Almeida said. “But I knew what we were trying to build.”

The program continued its upward trajectory during the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons. After reaching the top-25 for the first time since 2002, the Panthers won their first NCAA tournament game in 2019.

“I remember on my college visit here, talking to Jay, he said ‘Look, this isn’t an established program, but we are building it,’” Almeida said. “I bought into that promise, and it was true.”

Vidovich’s vision was coming to fruition and Almeida was there every step of the way. Along with Almeida, midfielder Jackson Walti, forward Alexander Dexter and defender Sito Sena had all experienced the gradual rise of the program from 2018-21.

Pitt reached its first ever College Cup in 2020-21 — a stark contrast for a program that failed to win a conference game just five years prior.

While Almeida played a fair amount throughout his first three years at Pitt, the now-veteran hadn’t logged more than four starts in a season prior to the 2021 campaign due to a series of injuries.

Now that Almeida is finally injury-free, he has been able to find his role within the Pitt system. The player who was once recruited for his versatility is finally able to showcase what made him such an asset.

“Every season of my soccer career, I had some injury that made me miss a few games,” Almeida said. “But now I have some consistency and my confidence goes up.”

Vidovich said Almeida’s dedication and perseverance in returning from injury are a part of what makes him such a special player and person.

“His commitment over the last year and a half to getting healthy was tremendous,” Vidovich said. “It speaks volumes about him as a person.”

Almeida currently leads all Pitt players in goals with six and in points with 12, serving as an everyday member in Pitt’s starting lineup.

Almeida plans on returning to Pitt for his final year of eligibility in fall 2022. Regarding what he plans to do after he’s done at Pitt, Almeida said he would love to continue being around the game. But regardless of where life takes him, he will carry with him the values he learned from his soccer career.

“I would love to keep playing soccer at a high level, but sports are very uncertain so I also keep my education as a priority,” Almeida said. “I would be very happy to take all the knowledge and lessons I learned from soccer to my life, regardless of what I do after this.”