The Sweet Sixteen Gets Underway Saturday In Portland Oregon.
Pittsburgh (10-4-5) at Kentucky (15-0-5) – Lexington, Kentucky – Sunday 6 p.m.
Both of these teams are coming off larger than expected wins. Kentucky secured a 4-0 win over South Florida at home while Pitt advanced by topping Akron 3-0 in the road. Both teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive season.
A good crowd should be on hand at the Wendell and Vickie Bell Soccer Center to witness this one. Both teams are attack oriented and will seek to set the tempo from the get-go. At this point in the season neither team is going to make substantive changes in their style of play.
Kentucky had difficulty coming up with the big play they needed to prevail when they had three consecutive draws during the early part of October. However, they have hands down been the most consistent team in college soccer this year in terms of closing out contests. The consistency of their play is one of the reasons why the Wildcats are the only undefeated team in Division I college soccer and the overall number one seed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky will push numbers forward to create situations that will give forwards Eythor Bjorgolfsson (10g, 2a) and Casper Grening (10g, 5a) and midfielder Enzo Mauriz (7g, 5a) among others the time and the space they need to create and finish opportunities to score in the attacking third. If the Wildcats can do that successfully while maintaining the shape needed on the defensive side of the ball to prevent a Pitt counter attack they should prevail.
Pittsburgh will seek to open the field of play by attacking down the side to find seams that they can exploit. Look for the ability of forward Bertin Jacquesson to find space that he can push into and the ability of midfielder Valentin Noel (9g, 3a) to finish the opportunities that come his way in the attacking third to have an impact on that.
Pitt has come out flat at times this year and allowed an early goal. The Panthers have to hit the ground running and put in a full 90 minute shift if they hope to leave Lexington with a win. Much will hinge whether or not they can play through the pressure that they will face from Kentucky. If they are able to do that and apply pressure themselves they have a shot at leaving Lexington with a win.
Both of these teams have very talented and deep midfields so look for the play in the middle third to have a huge impact on who gets the best of possession and the run of play. Kentucky midfielder Nick Gutman (5g, 18) and Pitt midfielder Filip Mirkovic (3g, 12a) are among those with the ability to make good things happen for their teams.
This one should be an exciting multi-goal run and gun contest.
Western Michigan (16-2-2) at Portland (14-2-3) – Portland, Oregon – Saturday 5 pm PT
It may be cold when this one begins but you can expect an enthusiastic crowd to be on hand at Merlo Field in Portland.
Both teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with impressive on the road wins.
Western Michigan defeated Louisville 2-1 and number nine seed Lipscomb University 1-0 on the road. Portland advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2009 by topping UC Riverside 2-1 at home and number eight seed Oregon State 2-0 on the road.
This is a very good Western Michigan team whose resume includes regular season wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern and a 2-1 win over Akron in the MAC Championship match.
Western Michigan has scored 43 goals and only allowed nine.
Portland is also having a banner season with regular season wins over Seton Hall 3-1 and UCLA 2-0 and noteworthy ties on the road with Indiana 3-3 and Denver 0-0. The Plots have played their way into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2009 and their 14 wins is the best the program has since 1995.
The Pilots have scored a total of 50 goals, the fourth best in the country, while a stout defense led by graduate student goalkeeper George Tasouris and junior back Delentz Pierre has only allowed 18 goals.
Western Michigan plays a stellar team-oriented brand of soccer on the defensive side of the ball but they also keep opposing defenses honest with a balanced attack powered by midfielders Charlie Sharp (11g, 8a) and Dylan Sing (6g, 7a) and forwards Eric Conerty (3g, 11a) and Mike Melaragni (5g, 7a). Defender Daniel Nimick (8g, 1a) adds yet another dimension to the offense.
Midfielders Brandon Cambridge (12g, 7a), the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, Sebastian Nava (4g, 10a) and Nick Fernandez (1g,7a) and forwards Jacob Babalai (8g, 4a) and CJ Tibbling (7g, 2a) are key ingredients in a multi-dimensional Portland attack.
The key storyline in this one is whether the Western Michigan defense anchored by graduate student goalkeeper Hunter Morse, whose .0.45 goals against average in the best in the nation, and backs senior Daniel Nimick, graduate student Matt Lockwood, redshirt senior Jaylen Shannon and redshirt sophomore can contain a potent Portland attack powered by Brandon Cambridge and Jacob Babalai and company. This one may be scoreless at halftime but things will open up in the second half. A single goal may not decide the outcome but whoever scores first will have a big advantage. The attack of Portland vs the defense of Western Michigan is the key to this one.
Lapses in play will be costly in this one.