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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Self-described 'set piece merchant' Russo has proven reliable in the clutch

Senior forward Daniel Russo takes the game-winning shot at Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. Credit: Meghan Lange | The Observer

After Notre Dame men’s soccer’s College Cup-clinching win over Indiana, Daniel Russo joked to the assembled media, “I'd like to call myself a 'set piece merchant.'” It was a moment of levity from a player who minutes earlier had extended his team’s season another week with his composure from the penalty spot.

Russo has been stellar on set pieces, no doubt. His first-half free-kick gave the Irish the lead against the Hoosiers, his second such goal of the season. The focus on Russo’s set-piece ability, though, ignores the more important thing he’s developed a knack for — delivering when his team needs him most.

The senior forward’s four goals this year are far from eye-catching, at face value. But look at when those goals were scored, and you see a far different player. He notched what would go on to be the game-winner against Clemson. He equalized Notre Dame’s matches against both North Carolina and Wake Forest in the final ten minutes.

Add in a pair of shootout-winning penalty kicks against Western Michigan and Indiana, and it becomes clear that Russo is more than just a skillful forward with a penchant for beating his defender on the dribble.

He’s one of the most clutch players in college soccer.

So what drives Russo’s ability to come up in the biggest moments? The forward himself isn’t sure. The one thing he does know is that he couldn’t do it without the help of his teammates.

“We always joke about it on the team — ‘you just can’t score when it doesn’t matter,’” said Russo. “I can’t just take all the credit, though. Obviously my teammates too help me out with that. I’m not the one always putting in the services or drawing the fouls. I can’t give you an exact answer on why those late goals are happening, but I’m grateful for them and hopefully they continue to come.”

Regardless of the reason, Russo’s equanimity shines through in the most hectic moments. He was Notre Dame’s closer in both of their shootout wins, sending the Irish through with a pair of clinical finishes.

The process is simple but surgically effective. A quick few steps to gather momentum, one long stride to plant his right foot parallel to the ball and a powerful strike into the bottom corner of the net. It’s a routine, one that Russo has done countless times in low-stakes situations. But when the moment comes to apply that routine with a season on the line, it’s as well-rehearsed as any.

“We’ve practiced these penalties hundreds of times,” Russo said. “In terms of just being ready for that, you’ve practiced it so much that when you step up you just hope you’re doing the same thing that you do in practice.”

Russo’s path to Notre Dame wasn’t a conventional one by any means. He never possessed a sky-high recruiting ranking and didn’t garner heavy attention from scouts throughout much of his youth career. He played with the New York Red Bulls Academy in his final year of high school. But before that last season, he plied his trade at a local club, Wall SC Cosmos.

The Irish didn’t have to fight with college soccer’s traditional heavyweights to bring Russo to South Bend. But they were captivated by his play. When Notre Dame offered Russo a shot, he leaped at the chance to take it.

“I didn’t really have any of those other big offers,” said Russo. “So for me it was ‘I’m going here.’ Once that happened, I did everything possible. I took the SAT about four times so that I could get in, but we got there eventually. And I couldn’t be happier with the decision that I’ve made.”

Though he might have not arrived with the recruiting prestige of some of his classmates, Russo made a quick impact in South Bend. He started in five games as a freshman, notching a goal and assist as a rookie. He’d spend the next two years as a rotational starter, upping his statistical output each year. And while this year he hasn’t hit a career-high in goals, assists or points, each of his contributions have been worth their weight in gold.

Russo can create a goal from thin air when he’s taking a free kick, but that isn’t his greatest asset. There are many players with a talented right or left foot. But a steadfast mentality and composure are unique, ensuring that when the moment comes, Daniel Russo will be there to meet it.