PITTSBURGH - With the season opener just days away, the Pitt men's soccer team gears up to enter its second season in the gauntlet of the Atlantic Coast Conference, arguably the best league in men's collegiate soccer.
Head coach Joe Luxbacher returns to the sidelines for his 31st season leading the blue and gold. Luxbacher continues climbing up the active coaching record books as each year passes by. He now ranks as the eighth longest-tenured coach at the Division I level, entering his 34th collegiate season overall, and is fourth in years at one school. With 236 career victories, Luxbacher sits 31st among active coaches, while his 212 wins at Pitt ranks 23rd for coaches at a single institution.
The Panthers return 18 players from their 2013 squad, which produced 61.5-percent of the goal scoring and 72.7-percent of the assists. Despite losing six players, including four starters, Pitt has experience and leadership on its side with seven players returning to the pitch that started at least half of the contests and another four that made at least six starts.
Pitt will hope to continue its late-season boost from 2013 into the new season. In the final two games, the Panthers dominated Howard 9-0, in what stands as the second most goals ever by a Pitt men's soccer team, then dropped a narrow 2-0 decision to eventual National Champion Notre Dame in South Bend, in a game that was put out of reach by the Irish's second goal with only nine minutes remaining.
Following a successful exhibition slate, that saw the Panthers go 2-1 with five goals in the final two games and some potential breakout stars, Pitt is poised to improve this season with a slightly less daunting out of conference schedule.
Of the Panthers' 17 games for the 2014 campaign, four are against teams ranked in the NSCAA pre-season poll, with three more currently receiving votes. Six of those teams are coming off an NCAA tournament berth, including two that advanced to the Final Four, with Notre Dame winning it all.
After beginning the season at home against Presbyterian on Saturday, Aug. 30, Pitt will head on a challenging three-game road trip that features matches at William & Mary, a club receiving votes, and nationally-ranked No. 22 North Carolina.
Pitt returns to Ambrose Urbanic Field for a three-game home swing during a seven-day span. First up is Lafayette on Wednesday, Sept. 17, followed by ACC-foe North Carolina State on Saturday, Sept. 20. Niagara, which is led by former Panther player and assistant coach Eric Barnes, concludes the homestand on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
For the remainder of the season, Pitt alternates home and away games, with the exception of back-to-back road games at preseason No. 14 Louisville and nearby Robert Morris, and consecutive home games two weeks later.
On Saturday, Oct. 4 in front of a national broadcast audience, Pitt hosts one of its biggest games in the short history of Ambrose Urbanic Field when 2013 Final Four participant, No. 3 Virginia visits.
The Panthers end the season playing four of its final six games at home. One week after the tilt with Virginia, Clemson, the second team in the "also receiving votes" category, comes to town (Oct. 11). Three nights later, Howard pays a visit to Pittsburgh (Oct. 14). A non-conference date with High Point at home on Saturday, Oct. 21 breaks up the conference schedule.
Pitt will appear on ESPN3 for the fourth and final time at Duke on Friday, Oct. 24 before coming back home to wrap up the regular season with defending National Champion Notre Dame on Saturday, Nov. 1.
Offensively, Pitt gets three of its top four point scorers back from the 2013 team. However, none of them will be playing on the front line. The tempo up front will be dictated by a pair of seniors and freshmen.
Returning up top are Cory Werth and Chu Chu Onyeukwu. Werth, a fifth-year, played in all 16 games, making 14 starts. In his first year with the program in 2012, he tallied four points on a goal and an assist. Onyeukwu brings the most experience to the table, appearing in 46 games over his career. He came off the bench in all 15 contests last year, scoring his only goal in the season opener. During the exhibition slate, both players were involved in the scoring with Werth tallying a goal and Onyeukwu notching an assist.
Two newcomers are expected to be in the fold for playing time at the forward position in International freshman Hamish Law (Scotland) and Kevin Angulo (Canada). Angulo ended the preseason on a strong note, recording a two-goal game in the finale against crosstown rival Duquesne. Law, who assisted on one of Angulo's goals, had a knack for scoring in high school. As a senior, he put the ball into the back of the net 39 times in just 12 games, breaking the school record.
The middle 50-percent of the field looks to be a strong suit for the Panthers with plenty of depth and experience returning to the position. Top-scorer, sophomore Kevin Murray led the team last season with three goals as a rookie in just 11 matches. For the season, Murray racked up four shots, all on goal, and converted three for a stellar shot percentage of .750. Two of his three goals came in the 9-0 rout of Howard.
Seniors Michael Tuohy and Dan Prete will bring veteran leadership to the midfield line. Tuohy has started 25 games at the position over the past two seasons and enters his senior year with three goals and three assists in his career. Tuohy's 25 starts are the most on the midfield line and third most on the current roster. Prete has 22 starts in three years under his belt, with six coming last season.
Two sophomores, Romeo Charron and Sam Marks gained experience in 2013 as true freshman. Charron appeared in 12 games, making 10 starts. In limited playing time, Marks recorded two assists in 98 minutes on the field, spanning four games.
A welcomed addition at midfield is junior transfer Patrick Dixon, who comes to Pitt from the Catholic University of Australia and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Four freshmen will join the mix in the middle, with two hailing from Ontario and the other two from the Northeast. Matt Bischoff, a New York State All-Stare and All-Region selection as a senior, helped lead Fairport High to the state finals, registering six goals and five assists along the way. Local product Jack Dickens hails from Fox Chapel, Pa and was an All-State performer in 2013.
Darcy Bloemen looks to be the gem in the incoming class. Rated three stars by Top Drawer Soccer, Bloemen was once a member of the 2014 Boys IMG Academy 150 Player Pool. In Canada, Bloemen played for Sigma FC Under 21 team. He finished with one assist during the exhibition schedule. Fellow Ontario native, Raj Kahlon also has some impressive accolades to his name. He was one of the top 50 players in last year's Keele Cup International Tournament in England. Kahlon is a member of the Toronto Lynx U20 program and has trained with high-profile clubs West Ham (United Kingdom) and Dinamo Zagra (Croatia). The rookie started off the scoring splurge in Pitt's 3-0 preseason win versus California (Pa.).
The defense might be in even better shape than the midfield line and will look to provide a brick wall in front of the goalkeepers. With some positional changes, the defense boasts a combined 61 starts among six players from last year alone.
Redshirt junior Ryan Myers is an offensive-minded defender who tied for the team lead with six points on two goals and a team-best two assists in 2013. He was also third on the team two years ago with seven points.
Veterans, junior Kevin Fielden and former midfielder senior Julian Dickenson will also anchor the back line. Both players started 14 games apiece last year and saw the most minutes of any positional players all season long. For their careers, Dickenson has 33 starts and Fielden has 30.
Three other newcomers from the 2013 squad each started seven games on defense. Senior Zane Meehan, who transferred from Northwest Nazarene University after starting 34 games in two years, appeared in nine games with seven starts. He tallied one goal and one assist in his first season at Pitt. Sophomores Stephane Pierre and Brandon Kolczynski were also in the starting lineup for seven games apiece, with Pierre playing in a total of eight and Kolczynski 10.
Junior Andrew Wright and sophomore Steven Machi both played sparingly last year and will continue adding to the depth of the Panther defense.
Pitt returns both of its goalies from a year ago, led by starter Dan Lynd. In 14 starts, Lynd posted a career-low 1.66 goals against average with three shutouts, 87 saves and a .784 save percentage in 1301:23. Sophomore Braden Horton received some valuable time in between the pipes as a true freshman, making two starts, going 1-1-0 with a shutout. In 221:37, Horton had a goals against average of 0.81 and made nine saves for a save percentage of .818.
The two combined for 99 saves which was the most by any ACC team.
Freshman Will Marshall also joins the roster from nearby by East Allegheny High School in North Versailles, Pa. Marshall, entered his senior season as one of 18 players and only one of two goals named an East Player to Watch by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but missed most of his final season due to an injury. As a junior, Marshall was a First Team All-Section receipent.