Panthers advance to semifinals of ACC soccer tournament with 2-1 win over Hokies


Patrick Cavanagh | Staff Photographer

Pitt midfielder Jackson Walti (24) kicks the ball past Virginia Tech midfielder Camron Lennon (21) at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Sunday.

By Will McGlynn, For The Pitt News

No. 4 Pitt men’s soccer (11-4-1 overall, 5-2-1 ACC) defeated No. 21 Virginia Tech (10-5-3 overall, 3-4-1 ACC) 2-1 in extra time in front of an electrified home crowd. The win continued a streak of home dominance for the Panthers, who won their 19th straight at Ambrose Urbanic Field.

The Panthers came out firing at the start of the game as junior midfielder Valentin Noel scored in just the fourth minute. After graduate student midfielder Matt Bailey passed a well-placed ball into the middle, Noel blasted a shot into the top left corner of the net — putting the Panthers ahead 1-0 early.

However, the Panthers quickly lost this lead. After another chance for Pitt in the box, Virginia Tech went on the counterattack. Hokie senior midfielder Kyle McDowell put away a tipped cross in the box to get Virginia Tech back in the game in the ninth minute.

The play was exactly what Virginia Tech had done all year, turning a good defensive stop into danger in the opposing side’s eighteen-yard box. The Panthers simply weren’t able to clear the ball before McDowell got his boot to it, Pitt head coach Jay Vidovich said following the game. “The biggest thing that happened is we let our guard down,” Vidovich said. “We started out on fire but [the] boys from Virginia Tech answered.”

Although there were no goals for the remainder of the regulation period, there were plenty of chances. The Panthers ended the game with 20 shots, ten of which were on target. But Ben Martino, Virginia Tech’s 6-foot-6 first-year goalkeeper, made saves to keep the game level.

Martino ended the night with eight saves, including one difficult stop early in the match to prevent a sure goal from Noel. 

The Panthers kept working to find chances all the way into the second half of extra time. Pitt captain and graduate midfielder Jackson Walti said postgame that his team tried not to let missed opportunities affect their play later in the game.

“This year we’ve been working on building on our actions and responding positively to missed chances,” Walti said.

Just before the end of the first extra-time period, Walti fired a shot toward goals that looked like it would surely end the game, but Martino pushed the ball wide instead. True to his words, the captain calmly walked off the field and before the beginning of the second half of extra time, got the crowd and his teammates excited for the final push. He ran about the pitch motioning for more noise from the crowd and shouting directions at his teammates.

The Panthers were finally able to break through, scoring once again with just under eight minutes remaining in the second extra-time period. Sophomore Bertin Jacquesson made a run and crossed the ball into the box where, who else but the Panthers’ reliable scorer, Noel blasted the ball past the keeper for the win.

“They were always a threat to catch us on the counter or a restart which kept us very honest all the way through the end of the match,” Vidovich said.

On the stat sheet, the Panthers dominated the Hokies, outshooting them and winning the possession battle by significant margins. The Panthers also dominated the attacking third and won six corners to go along with the high shot total. Virginia Tech’s defense held out for as long as they could, but the Panthers simply created too many chances to score.

This was a physical game from start to finish, but Virginia Tech was more often on the wrong end of these physical plays. Five different Virginia Tech players got yellow cards while the Panthers only had a single player receive one.

This flurry of yellow cards was not helpful for a Virginia Tech team that was already missing some key players due to injury. The Panthers were unable to convert on any of the free kicks from these fouls, but it kept Virginia Tech on the defensive throughout the game — allowing the Panthers to press all over the field and dominate the ball. 

The Panthers press made it difficult for Virginia Tech to comfortably work the ball up the field. Walti said they had their midfield play closer to their center backs to limit the effectiveness of these long balls and exploit a disconnect between the midfield and forwards on Virginia Tech. 

The Panthers advance to the semi-final of the ACC tournament and will play against No. 14 Notre Dame (10-5-3 overall, 4-2-2 ACC) at home on Wednesday. Notre Dame also thrives on attacking off of long passes downfield. Although Pitt entered tournament play as the top seed in the ACC, this matchup with Notre Dame is sure to be tough.

Fortunately for Pitt, Bailey will be joining the Panthers on Wednesday after leaving with an injury in the 75th minute. He appeared to hit his head, but according to Vidovich he’s feeling fine and expects to play against Notre Dame.

The Panthers have high aspirations for the rest of this tournament and will seek to avenge last year’s loss to Clemson in the conference title game and earn their first ACC crown. 

“It’s important for us to keep trying to play our game,” Walti said. “If we continue to play our soccer with quick touches and passes we can be the best team in the country.”