From Brazil to Pittsburgh, Rodrigo Almeida embodies Pitt’s imaginative and prescient of a soccer program
The Pitt men’s coaching team had a number of goals during the team’s rise to national relevance, including a culture of players dedicated to the game, their academics, and those looking to set an example for their followers.
“We’re a workers team in a workers town,” said Pitt assistant coach Michael Behonick. “We rely on the hard work of our entire team and our employees and can pass this vision on to the younger guys.”
Senior midfielder Rodrigo Almeida is no exception.
Almeida is from Santiago, Brazil, and started playing soccer at a young age. The game was a part of Almieda’s life in his youth and he loved it more and more as he got older.
“Football is really big in Brazil,” said Almeida. “Football is everywhere. According to my father, I’ve started kicking a ball since I started running. “
Almeida also made a name for himself in the talented Brazilian soccer team. Soon after, he realized that he could turn the game into more than just a fun hobby.
“I started to take it a little more seriously when I saw that it could be something good for the future,” said Almeida. “From then on I just kept working.”
Almeida first came to the United States at the age of 15 as an exchange student at the Montverde Academy, about 30 minutes west of Orlando, Florida. Almeida’s original plan was to go to school and play soccer in America for a year before returning to Brazil to complete his education.
But as Almeida’s time at Montverde Academy progressed, the joy of American culture grew. Almeida faced a potentially life-changing decision – whether to stay in the US or return to Brazil after his exchange ended.
As someone who was passionate about both athletics and an education, Almeida was intrigued by the idea of playing college football in the United States. He soon decided to stay and become a full-time student at the Montverde Academy.
“It was a pretty quick decision,” said Almeida. “I don’t know how much my parents regret their decision to bring me here, since I’ve decided to stay and they’re still in Brazil … I saw the opportunity to play college football, get a scholarship and while to play my training. “… so I had to stay.”
Behonick introduced Almeida Pitt during his senior year of high school and spoke to Almeida and two of his teammates after a workout.
“We went to the coaching office and just had a meeting with him to introduce ourselves to Pitt,” said Almeida. “That was the first contact I had personally with Pitt.”
Behonick was immediately drawn to Almeida’s game. The young midfielder’s ability to own the ball, move it effectively and create opportunities caught the Pitt coach’s eye. Pitt staff also saw Almeida’s potential to play a variety of roles within their program.
“I remember Rodrigo as a guy who was very good on the ball,” said Behonick. “He was able to play with the ball under pressure, create chances for his teammates and push the last pass.”
Pitt Head Coach Jay Vidovich has become very familiar with the Montverde Academy over the years. Vidovich has recruited several players from school and built a relationship with the coaching staff.
“One of my friends is a Brazilian who was working with Montverde at the time and helping boys find a place,” said Vidovich. “I always trusted him with players and he told me about Rodrigo.”
Vidovich eventually offered Almeida a scholarship for Pitt, which the striker accepted. Being able to keep playing the game he loved while he was still studying was something Almeida valued and one of the reasons he was drawn to Pittsburgh. The young player saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity – one he would not have had if he had stayed in Brazil.
“The idea of college sports, as big as it is in the US, I don’t think it exists anywhere else in the world,” said Almeida. “In Brazil you have to decide at a certain point whether you want to study or play – it’s really, really difficult to do both.”
Almeida joined Pitt in 2018, a year after the team left 2-6 in the ACC game. The Panthers have the same conference record during the regular season 2018but advanced in the postseason. Almeida and the Panthers won their first ACC tournament game in program history after that Blow off Virginia in the first round with a score of 2-0 – a checkpoint for national relevance.
“We weren’t a big program at all when I came here,” said Almeida. “But I knew what we were trying to build.”
The program continued its upward trend in the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons. After reaching the top 25 for the first time since 2002who have favourited Panthers won their first NCAA tournament game in 2019.
“I remember speaking to Jay here when I went to college, ‘Look, this is not an established program, but we’re building it,'” Almeida said. “I took that promise and it was true.”
Vidovich’s vision became a reality and Almeida was there every step of the way. Along with Almeida, midfielder Jackson Walti, striker Alexander Dexter and defender Sito Sena had all seen the gradual rise of the program from 2018-21.
Pitt achieved his very first College cup in 2020-21 – a stark contrast to a program that failed to win a conference game just five years earlier.
While Almeida played quite a bit in his first three years at Pitt, the current veteran didn’t logged in more than four starts in a season leading up to the 2021 season due to a series of injuries.
Now that Almeida is finally injury-free, he has found his role in the Pitt system. The player who was once recruited for his versatility can finally show what made him such an advantage.
“Every season of my football career, I’ve had an injury that resulted in me missing a few games,” said Almeida. “But now I have a certain consistency and my self-confidence is increasing.”
Vidovich said Almeida’s dedication and persistence in returning from injury are part of what makes him such a special player and person.
“His commitment to getting well over the past year and a half has been enormous,” said Vidovich. “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 a daily member of Pitt’s starting grid.
Almeida plans to return to Pitt in the fall of 2022 for its final year. Regarding what he plans to do after graduating from Pitt, Almeida said he’d love to keep playing. But no matter where life takes him, he will take with him the values he has learned from his football career.
“I would like to keep playing football at a high level, but the sport is very insecure, so my priority is my education,” said Almeida. “I would love to bring all the knowledge and lessons I have learned from football with me into my life, regardless of what I do afterwards.”