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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame women’s soccer: A way-too-early 2022 preview after the end of the 2021 season

Notre Dame women’s soccer fell 3-2 to Arkansas last week, ending a strong 2021 campaign for the program in the national Sweet 16. The season set a new high point under the tutelage of head coach Nate Norman, and there’s reason to believe further growth could come in 2022. Let’s take a look at how the team stacks up heading into next fall:

What we can expect

1. Korbin Albert will be a centerpiece her sophomore year

A player that got more and more influential as the season went on, Albert went from a talented freshman who showed flashes of brilliance to a player capable of running games against top 20 teams. Next year the Irish will have to figure out their best attack from scratch, as senior strike force Sammi Fisher and Olivia Wingate will both be likely departing. Fisher and Wingate accounted for two of Notre Dame’s top three leaders in goals and points- the third player in that top three was Albert. Chipping in more than her share of goals as well as providing excellent dribbling quality and defensive work rate, Albert was a mainstay in Norman’s midfield throughout the year. Whoever does start up front in South Bend come next August will greatly benefit from having the sophomore pulling strings behind them.

2. The defense is set to take major steps forward

The Irish defense in 2021 was steady, but not stellar, as the team juggled both a midseason goalie switch due to injury as well as the continued implementation of a 3-5-2 as Norman’s preferred formation. But in 2022, Notre Dame is set to bring back all three of its starting center backs in Eva Wirtz, Waniya Hudson and Eva Gaetino, as well as goalkeeper Ashley Naylor, who emerged at the end of the year as one of the ACC’s strongest keepers after taking over mid-September. With three of those four names being sophomores, the Irish have a strong core that gained vital chemistry this year and is set to make major strides next year when they return as a unit.

3. As a team, Notre Dame is on the doorstep of the elite

In his time as Notre Dame coach, Nate Norman has come close several times to cracking into the tier of the ACC’s four perennial national title contenders (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida State, Duke), but has never gotten over the hill and beaten two of those four in one season. This year, the Irish came the closest they have yet, losing all three games they played against teams in that elite category in the final 10 minutes, with two of the losses coming in overtime. While heartbreaking, these three agonizingly close losses all came on the road, and gave a team with a largely young core valuable experience against the best. Next year, the Irish will likely get at least two of Virginia, UNC, FSU or Duke at home, and a motivated and talented Notre Dame squad should have their best chance in years at some statement victories.

What still needs to be answered

1. Who steps in at the six?

With graduate student Camryn Dyke out of the picture next year, Notre Dame will be without a consistent presence in a critical spot of the field. Dyke was essential in providing the backline with additional support and structure. Her work as a lynchpin at the base of the midfield allowed for attacking midfielders like Korbin Albert, Maddie Mercado and Brooke VanDyck to have more freedom further up the pitch as they were not worried that they would be without support behind them if they lost the ball. Sophomore Caroline Gray frequently rotated in for Dyke throughout the year, and freshman Aly Akers showed promise at the deeper midfield role as well before an injury ended her season early. Though there are other options that could enter the mix — Eva Gaetino has collegiate experience at the position, and a new freshman class could bring an immediate contributor — in all likelihood, one of those two will get the opening day start. They’ll have to adapt to a large role quickly for the Irish to succeed.

2. Where will the goals come from?

A little under 40% of Notre Dame’s total goals this season could be attributed to Sammi Fisher and Olivia Wingate, and the Irish now face the prospect of having to start the season without either of that pairing. Assuming Norman keeps the 3-5-2 as his preferred formation heading into next season, that means there will be two wide open striker spots up for grabs on opening day. To say Notre Dame is thin on proven depth at center forward is an understatement — the only other nominal forward to have scored this year was Kiki Van Zanten, who is another senior that might be gone come next fall. It’s distinctly possible Notre Dame will be starting a forward partnership without any career goals for the Irish between them next August, meaning somebody will need to break out in 2022 for the team to keep their momentum from 2021 going.

3. Will Norman make use of the transfer portal to add to the roster?

Over the last two years, the rise of transfer portal usage as a commonality and not a rarity has unquestionably changed the way coaches in soccer and all sports build their squads. Though it’s unknown what the portal will hold this offseason, last year several top-quality players swapped schools and ended up being difference makers for title contending teams (Frankie Tagliaferri at Rutgers likely being the most prominent example, as she elevated the Scarlet Knights from a team that fell just short of a Big Ten title in 2020 to current College Cup participants). It wouldn’t be a surprise if Norman takes a look at the portal to see if he can add perhaps a forward to answer question two, or just general depth and experience to the roster.