Preview | Pitt men’s soccer gears up for Elite Eight matchup against Portland


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Graduate midfielder Ideal Shefqeti (15) bounces the ball off of his head during the Pitt men’s soccer game against Akron in September.

By Brian Sherry, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt men’s soccer team is on a Cinderella run in this season’s NCAA tournament. The Panthers were unseeded coming into the tournament, but that didn’t bother them. Pitt won three straight games, earning a spot in the tournament quarterfinals. Just one more win will give the Panthers their second College Cup qualification in three seasons. 

But the path to the College Cup will not be easy. The Panthers must defeat Portland on Saturday at Ambrose Urbanic Field to advance to the semifinals. Portland is also on a Cinderella run this season, as they too were unseeded coming into the tournament. Both teams will fight tooth and nail for a spot in the College Cup. Here’s what to look out for in the matchup. 

An unlikely run for both teams

The Panthers began their 2023 tournament campaign with a 2-1 home victory over Cleveland State. Junior forward Bertin Jacquesson carried the Panther performance, scoring both goals in the victory.

Pitt then traveled to Akron for a matchup with the No. 16 Zips. The two teams faced each other earlier in the season, with the game resulting in a tie. But it was all Pitt this time. Senior midfielder Valentin Noel scored two goals in the Panthers’ 3-0 victory over Akron. 

But the Panthers faced their biggest test on the road against No. 1 Kentucky in the third round. The game was tied 1-1 heading into the closing minutes of regulation, but Pitt made a near season-ending mistake in the 78th minute. 

Graduate student defenseman Henrique Gallina drew a red card for injuring Kentucky sophomore midfielder Martin Soereide. The Panthers were forced to play with only 10 players on the pitch for the remainder of the game. But Jacquesson still scored the shorthanded goal to lead the Panthers to a 2-1 victory. 

Portland also had an eventful path to the Elite Eight. The Pilots earned a 2-1 home victory over UC Riverside in the first round. Sophomore forward Jacob Babalai notched the Pilots opening goal and later earned an assist on the game-winning score. 

The Pilots then cruised to a 2-0 upset victory over in-state rival No. 8 Oregon State. Babalai also scored the Pilots’ opening goal in the win over the Beavers. Then the Pilots moved on to face Western Michigan in the third round. Neither team could generate much offense for much of the game. But the Pilots ultimately battled to a 1-0 victory over the Broncos. 

Players to watch 

Portland has a few players that Pitt needs to watch out for. Babalai dominated in the Pilots’ first two games of the tournament. The sophomore midfielder is second in goal scoring for the Pilots, with eight on the season. 

But Babalai is not Portland’s top player, despite his postseason success. Sophomore midfielder Brandon Cambridge is the player the Panthers need to cover carefully. The Canadian midfielder notched 12 goals and seven assists this season. Cambridge is also an aggressive shot taker, leading the Pilots with 50 shots in 2022. Portland will need Cambridge to generate offense if they want to win on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Jacquesson is on fire for the Panthers this season. The French forward is Pitt’s second-leading goal scorer, with eight goals on the year. But Jacquesson also performs better when the lights are the brightest. Jacquesson’s heroics against Cleveland State and Kentucky cement him as a clutch performer for the Panthers. 

Pitt junior midfielder Filip Mirkovic and Noel are also players to watch out for. Mirkovic is a highly skilled passer, leading the team in assists with 12. Noel leads the team in points and goals, with 23 and 10, respectively. Both players will need to continue their dominant 2022 performance on Saturday against the Pilots. 

Prediction: The Panthers advance to the College Cup with a 2-0 victory over the Pilots

This game favors the Panthers in almost every way. Pitt has the home-field advantage, which is huge against a cross-country opponent. The Panthers are also a more tested team than the Pilots. Pitt faced nine ranked teams in the regular season, compared to only three for the Pilots. 

Even in the tournament, the Panthers faced tougher opponents. Pitt handed Kentucky their first loss this season, while the Pilots scraped by against lesser opponents. The Panthers will fall back on their experience to earn the win.

Pitt will face off against the Pilots at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Saturday. The match is set to begin at 1 p.m. and coverage will air on ESPN+.