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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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2024 Observer Sports Male Athlete of the Year: Bryan Dowd

Irish men’s soccer goalkeeper was TopDrawerSoccer’s National Player of the Year in 2023

The 2020s have marked quite the renaissance for Notre Dame men’s soccer. Despite their status as a perennial NCAA Tournament participant, the Irish went seven seasons without a College Cup berth after winning it all in 2013.

In the last three seasons, they have marched into the College Cup twice as one of the nation’s top four teams. Right in the thick of both runs into December -- the program’s last line of defense, goalkeeper Bryan Dowd.

As Notre Dame reached the national championship game this past season — Dowd’s fourth in the college ranks and third as the full-time Irish starter — the man between the posts made the leap from high-quality to world-class. In his 2021 College Cup season, Dowd posted a .708 save percentage. Compare that to a ridiculous .824 mark with a 0.699 goals-against average in 2023, and it’s easy to see why the senior landed some of college soccer’s most prestigious honors. Atlantic Coast Conference Goalkeeper of the Year. United Soccer Coaches First-Team All-American. And, most notably, TopDrawerSoccer National Player of the Year.

“It really meant a lot. All I wanted to do when I committed to Notre Dame was to bring success to the school, to the university and to my teammates,” Dowd said. “So doing that along the way, I was able to pick up an award like that, which is a great honor, because I know there [are] some other really strong keepers throughout the whole country — and even strong keepers on our own roster.”

Throughout his tenure in South Bend, Dowd became known for his performances in the sport’s biggest moments. He went 4-1 in postseason penalty-kick shootouts, making the save that sent Notre Dame through to the College Cup in 2021. He also shut down top programs in the ACC, leading the Irish to an unbeaten regular season in conference play last fall.

But Dowd knew he had the goods long before accomplishing any of those feats. Try March 16, 2021, a day on which Dowd made his first collegiate start in his first game played. Fittingly, he posted a clean sheet, the first of 24 for his career, as Notre Dame defeated Calvin by a 1-0 score.

“I made this pretty nice free-kick save to keep the shutout. And at that point, I kind of realized that, you know what, I can do this. I can hang,” Dowd recalled. “And from that moment on, I just made the most out of every game and really just enjoyed my time and got as much out of every game as I could.”

Dowd’s brief introduction to college soccer in the spring of 2021 snowballed into an intense fall campaign. As Keagan McLaughlin transferred to Ohio State, Dowd found himself as the starting keeper on Opening Night in late August. Despite taking some lumps early on, the sophomore found another level when the brightest lights turned on. Dowd started the postseason with six consecutive clean sheets, anchoring an ACC Championship for the Irish. Even when that streak ended, Dowd delivered his best single-game performance, making five traditional saves plus two more in penalty kicks in the national quarterfinals.

Though Dowd and the Irish would fall short of the national championship game and later experience a down year in 2022, an even greater season awaited in 2023. The experienced senior allowed multiple goals in just one of his 15 regular-season starts before conceding no more than a single goal in his first 400 NCAA Tournament minutes. His final clean sheet in an Irish uniform sent Notre Dame to its first national championship game in a decade.

“Thankfully, we had a very mature team [in] those years [2021 and 2023]. So with that maturity comes the ability to manage the hot emotions that come when you're at the knockout stage,” Dowd said. “When you're fighting, [and] when every game can be your last, emotions are running high. So to have that maturity throughout the entire group really helped us to stay level-headed and to just take [it] one game at a time. And by doing that, we found ourselves with a lot of hardware, which is nice.”

With that hardware also came an immense rise in professional stock. And sure enough, the Major League Soccer club closest to South Bend — and to Dowd’s hometown of Willow Springs, Illinois — had its eyes on the Irish keeper all along. Just eight days after the college soccer season, the Chicago Fire used their sixth overall pick on Dowd, making him the highest-drafted Notre Dame men’s soccer player since Nick Besler in 2015.

Two months into his first MLS Next Pro season, Dowd broke down his initial sense of professional soccer. 

“Things have been going great,” he said. “Obviously, making the jump from college to professional, [there’s] definitely some pretty big differences between the two, but I felt like I've acclimated pretty well. And I've had some great guys here who have really helped me along the way to help me get situated as quickly as possible.”

“In [a] professional environment, everyone is at the best of their game. These are all professionals who were the top players for all their age groups growing up, and now they're getting paid to play soccer every day. So a big difference here is how much time you're spending in the facility… And then a difference that I haven't really felt yet, but I imagine I will feel is just the length of the season. Going from March to hopefully November [or] is definitely much longer than the college season that I'm used to.”

You won’t easily find rookies in MLS organizations with deeper high-level soccer experience than Dowd. His proudest college game is one he occasionally brings up to fellow Fire rookie Jason Shookalook. When Notre Dame traveled to Akron for a top-10 clash in September of last fall, Dowd shattered his career high with 12 saves in a 0-0 draw. Shookalook, a Zips forward at the time, put four of those shots on goal.

On Dowd’s self-made 2023 highlight reel, the Akron game appears more than any other.

“Thankfully, I had the problem of having to cut out saves [against Akron] to make that,” Dowd recalled with a chuckle.

As the 22-year-old Dowd begins to carve out his professional career, he recognizes the significance of his mental makeup. More than any ability to stop shots, lead transitions or communicate with defenders, Dowd believes that what goes on between the ears will carry his growth.

“I think the thing that will really help me grow here is just my mindset [that] every day I just want to get better,” Dowd said. “How can I get better? How could I keep asking myself? How could I save that? How could I make things more efficient? So having my mindset will really help me to grow and hopefully flourish at this level.”

With Notre Dame soccer now in the rearview mirror, Dowd won’t remember his Irish years primarily for his performances, nor for the prominence he and the program gained. Instead, he’ll cherish above all else the people who made his memory of Notre Dame, like him, an extraordinary keeper.

“There's a lot of soccer events that'll stick with me for a while, but something that I'll never lose is the friendships that I made,” Dowd said. “Yes, we were some great soccer teams [and] some great soccer players, but I am most thankful for the great friends that I made along the way. So the friendships are something that I hope to never lose and am just so thankful for.”