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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame men’s soccer gears up for bounce back 2023 campaign

Sophomore midfielder Sebastian Green prepares to strike the ball during Notre Dame men's soccer's 1-1 tie with Indiana at Alumni Stadium on Aug. 24.
Sophomore midfielder Sebastian Green prepares to strike the ball during Notre Dame men’s soccer’s 1-1 tie with Indiana at Alumni Stadium on Aug. 24.

Notre Dame men’s soccer has reached something of a crossroads as a program. The Irish made the College Cup in 2021, but they missed the NCAA tournament altogether in 2022. Which year represents the standard in South Bend? Head coach Chad Riley and Co. will be hoping to prove it’s the former in 2023.

One reason Riley hopes this season will be closer to 2021 is as simple as it is important: the team got older. One of the greatest strengths of Notre Dame’s College Cup team was its experience. Key players all over the pitch had years and years of collegiate games under their belt: namely 2021 seniors Jack Lynn, Mohamed Omar and Philip Quinton, as well as graduate student Dawson McCartney.

Meanwhile, last season featured lineup that seemed more developmental in nature. Six starters were underclassmen. So were several substitutes. Many of those starting players had never done so on a consistent basis.

As a result of the experience gained last season, Notre Dame lines up this year with a more seasoned lineup. The team’s most recent contest against IUPUI saw the starting 11 feature nine upperclassmen. The return of graduate student Ethan O’Brien from injury will add another veteran to the Irish team sheet as well.

Experience can only get you so far in a conference as deep as the ACC, though. Notre Dame will also need to answer key questions along the backline and in attack. For defense, the key question will be if a retooled backline can find more consistency.

The Irish defense never truly let the team down in a glaring way in any single game last year. Notre Dame only allowed more than two goals in a contest just twice all season. But it also seemed to leak goals every game as well. Notre Dame kept just one clean sheet in conference play last fall.

Captain Paddy Burns gives the Irish a senior mainstay at the fullback spot. Junior Josh Ramsey has been consistently reliable at center back as well. But will sophomore Mitch Ferguson and junior Kyle Genenbacher look strong filling the remaining holes in the back four? If the answer is yes, Notre Dame is set to have a much stronger foundation than last season.

On the attack, the question is less about who Notre Dame’s options are and more about how many of them can take a sizable step forward. Seven Irish players scored multiple goals in 2022. None of them, though, scored more than six in total.

Senior forward Daniel Russo led the team in points in 2022. His strong end to the season lends itself to hope that the veteran forward can take a step forward in his senior year. Junior forward Matthew Roou has been good for double-digit points each of his two years in South Bend, but will his final total be closer to 10 or 20? Sophomore midfielder KK Baffour flashed moments of all-ACC level talent his freshman year. How consistently can he affect the scoresheet as a full-time starter? And how many points can the always-forward-thinking Burns chip in from defense?

The answers to all of these hypothetical questions don’t all need to be a resounding “yes” for Notre Dame in order for the Irish to have a strong attack. But at least a few will be needed in order for an offense that ranked seventh in the conference in goals scored to rise higher in 2023.

An underrated benefit the Irish will enjoy this season as they look to return to prominence is their schedule. Last fall’s ACC slate did Notre Dame no favors: the team had to travel to Syracuse, Pitt, Duke and Virginia. Unsurprisingly, the team went 1-1-2 in those contests against the ACC’s best.

This year, Notre Dame faces just one team that finished in the top half of conference standings on the road: an October date with Wake Forest. The Irish have historically excelled at Alumni Stadium. A schedule that features 10 home games should rate as a rather favorable one.

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