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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Nto buries four goals, Irish make history on senior night

Before heading to a promising postseason, Notre Dame men’s soccer made history Friday night at Alumni Stadium. The fifth-ranked Irish leveled No. 20 Pittsburgh 6-0, earning their most dominant defeat of a ranked opponent in the program’s 46 years of existence. 

With the statement win, Notre Dame closed its masterful regular season at 11-1-4. And for the first time since joining the ACC, the Irish finished conference play unbeaten, going 6-0-2. Chad Riley’s side also clinched the No. 1 seed for the ACC tournament while strengthening its grip on a top NCAA tournament seed.

“We knew the problems that [Pittsburgh] posed, and we knew the transition would be important. Our guys handled those two elements of the game really well,” Riley said. “And then we had to value the ball. We out-possessed them a little bit, so we were smart with the ball. Overall, I’m pleased with the performance in all phases.”

Amid Notre Dame’s marvelous team game, one man’s performance jumped off the page. Junior forward Eno Nto scored four goals, stealing the spotlight on Senior Night. Nto’s showing marked Notre Dame’s first four-goal match since Sam Lapira in 2006, propelling him to double his career high with 10 tallies on the season.

“For me, it was just a matter of time,” Nto said. “Just having that belief that the goals will come as long as I put the work in in enough areas of my game. [I’ve been] working personally with coaches on stuff such as my off-the-ball positioning and target play. So concentrating on my overall play, and then the goals seem to follow after that.”

The high Irish press, which flustered the Panthers all night, created Nto’s first strike in the 10th minute. Junior midfielder Bryce Boneau ambushed an outlet pass from Pitt keeper Cabral Carter at the top of the 18. Boneau pushed the ball forward to the streaking Nto, who chipped it past Carter. 

In the 39th minute, Notre Dame doubled its lead on another turnover in the Pitt half. This time, junior right back Kyle Genenbacher intercepted a careless pass, finding freshman midfielder Nolan Spicer in the right side of the penalty area. Moving toward goal, he teed up junior forward Matthew Roou at the edge of the goal area. And though Carter had denied him brilliantly moments before, Roou answered the call. The junior forward slid between two Pitt defenders, punching his 10th goal of the season neatly into the corner.

As the Irish emerged from halftime up two with an 11-3 shooting advantage, their onslaught only intensified. A 63rd-minute corner kick generated Notre Dame’s 13th set-piece goal of the year, as Boneau’s 17-yard half-volley nicked Nto’s leg on its way to goal.

Just two minutes later, Nto collected his hat trick. A wonderful long ball from Boneau sent him in alone with sophomore midfielder KK Baffour. The latter’s inward pass set up Nto for a crisp, left-footed finish at the penalty spot. 

Of course, the Englishman still wasn’t done. Notre Dame’s midfield pressure, engineered by the tackle of sophomore midfielder Wyatt Lewis against Filip Mirkovic, sparked a 73rd-minute chance. Given space, Spicer collected the free ball and threaded a forward pass to Nto, who again bested Carter low with the right foot. 

At that point, the Irish were desecrating Pitt’s typically sound defensive operation. With the help of his teammates’ aggressiveness, Nto had completed the best scoring showcase from an ACC player this season. After the match, Chad Riley discussed the value of Notre Dame’s relentless pressure against the Panthers.

“They have an identity we talked about pregame, but you still have to stop it,” Riley said. “[Mirkovic] is one of the best center midfielders in the country, and our guys did a great job getting pressure on him. Their passing can cause problems, but if your pressure’s good you can get opportunities. So credit our guys for taking their pressure up a level.”

Even with a five-goal lead, Notre Dame’s substitutes maintained that high level of play. Just after the entrance of two seniors, midfielder Matthew McLaughlin and forward Alex Salvino, fired up the crowd of 2,224, sophomore midfielder Wyatt Borso scored from distance off a turnover. 

With Borso’s first goal of the year, Notre Dame closed the book on another superb second half. Outscoring Pitt 4-0 after halftime, the Irish extended their season goal differential to 20-2 in the final 45 minutes.

“The key is just, ‘How do you continue to do the things that you work on every day?’ I give the guys a lot of credit that they did that,” Riley said. “So it was a good second-half performance, because like we said at halftime, half a job is no job.”

Taking only five shots to Notre Dame’s 19, Pitt created very few chances throughout the match. But one, a first-half sitter, stood out as an additional catalyst to the visitors’ disastrous night.

In search of an early equalizer, Pitt seemingly struck gold in the 20th minute. A lovely through ball sent two Panthers, Albert Thorsen and Luis Sahmkow, in on goal behind the Irish back line. Thorsen’s centering feed left Sahmkow staring at a vacated target from seven yards out, but his one-timer shockingly dribbled wide.

That Panthers gift helped senior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd register his eighth clean sheet of the year. Boneau also enjoyed a standout performance, more than doubling his season total with three assists on the night.

Irish to host either Pittsburgh or Louisville

There’s a high probability that Notre Dame will see Pittsburgh again in next Sunday’s ACC quarterfinals. The Panthers gave their up goal differential advantage over North Carolina — and the seventh seed — Friday night. But, thanks to Wake Forest and Duke, Pitt hung on to the eighth seed and home-field advantage for Wednesday’s first round. There, the Panthers will face Louisville for the right to visit South Bend.

Next Sunday’s ACC quarterfinal match at Alumni Stadium is currently scheduled for 8 p.m. on Nov. 5. The ACC Network will broadcast the postseason contest.