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Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Observer

Irish don’t drop high expectations despite taking a step back

Freshman defender Mitch Ferguson helps up junior forward Daniel Russo during Notre Dame's 2-1 win over Boston College at Alumni Stadium on Sept. 30, 2022.
Freshman defender Mitch Ferguson helps up junior forward Daniel Russo during Notre Dame’s 2-1 win over Boston College at Alumni Stadium on Sept. 30.

Ending the regular season on a four-game unbeaten run, including a draw against number No. 9 Pitt, showed why Notre Dame men’s soccer they were rated so highly entering this season.

Last year, star players Mohamed Omar, Philip Quinton and Jack Lynn were all first-round selections in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft. These players combined for a total of 16 goals during the 2021 season, which is difficult to replace for any collegiate program.

The United Soccer Coaches Top 25 preseason poll ranked Notre Dame at number four entering the season. The Irish also brought in the third highest-ranked recruiting class to boot.

In order to maintain the culture of the program despite the loss of their previous captains, head coach Chad Riley stressed the importance of building leaders in the locker room this season.

“Most of our guys that come into our team were leaders before they got to Notre Dame. We have a thing where that first year you kind of lead yourself. You grow into your [role], then your second year you start to look out for your [teammates]. We call it being a great teammate,” Riley said. Later, he added, “These are our values. This is how Notre Dame works.”

This culture of responsibility and leadership helped the team through rough periods during the year. A late-season losing streak was countered with the aforementioned four-game unbeaten streak. That provided much-needed momentum for the Irish heading into the ACC tournament.

“Mentally, we never gave in. We didn’t split. That’s why you saw that response in the last few weeks [of the season],” Riley said. 

While the team fell to Clemson in the first round of the competition, the team’s performance still impressed Riley. He applauded them for playing well despite the pressure. He attributed the loss to the team’s two own goals, something that had not happened before all season.

When asked how the team can overcome this loss and situate themselves to win national championships consistently, the head coach said that they must get to the quarterfinals consistently. Riley explained how exposure to these competitions is important for the team in the following years as it allows them to gain the experience necessary to succeed.

Participating in these tournaments also helps to build the discipline of the players on the roster. Junior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd was once again a big contributor on the season after helping Notre Dame in their postseason run last year. Dowd started all 17 games, recording two clean sheets and totaling 43 saves at a .652 clip. Having players like Dowd on the roster provides consistency and a postseason foundation that can help to develop younger, less-experienced players as well.

“It’s huge that Brian has that experience,” Riley explained. “We had a really good spring developmental season. I’m excited with the progress we’ve made.”

Two freshmen that had a particularly great developmental season were midfielders KK Baffour and Sebastian Green. Baffour, who played in multiple positions this season, showed his versatility as a player. The midfielder’s first goal with the Irish was one to remember. Gifted a clear-cut breakaway, Baffour the winner in an away game at Virginia on Sept. 16 with three seconds remaining.

Riley maintains that Baffour’s versatility is a strength when looking ahead to his role for next season.

“Game situations are always going to dictate with players like KK,” Riley said. “We know we’re going to get an aggressive attacking player that will make things happen. We know him a lot better as a player and he’s going to be important for us.”

Green was another important player for the team this season. He played in every game despite being hampered by injuries at times. This includes five starts and one goal, and Riley believes he is ready to take the next step in the fall. The team unofficially ended the year on a celebratory a few weeks ago during Alumni Weekend at the University. Here, the players were able to meet players who were important in the program’s past, including the first team from 1977 and the national championship team from 2013.

“It was great to meet and talk with so many individuals who came before us and set the standards, making Notre Dame soccer what it is today,” Dowd said.

“[Our players] are a part of something that spans 45 years,” Riley said. “To see the pinnacle of that excellence only 10 years away and have our guys interact with guys on the 2013 team was just invaluable for our team.”

With an ACC championship title and seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons as a head coach, including five in South Bend, Riley knows that Notre Dame’s program is a winning one.

“We want to be the best, we want to be in the national championship,” Riley affirmed.