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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer


Second College Cup in three years further evidence of Notre Dame’s ascent

Irish finished atop ACC table, marched to College Cup final in 2023

The Notre Dame men’s soccer team’s 2023 season started and ended with Paddy Burns. 

The senior fullback opened the season account for the Irish 25 minutes into the team’s opening game against Indiana. 109 days later, he’d score the team’s final goal of the campaign with 61 seconds remaining against Clemson.

Between those two goals, Notre Dame won 13 games, captured an ACC regular season title and advanced to its second College Cup in three years.

A successful year? Absolutely, by any metric. But head coach Chad Riley knows more is possible. 

Reflecting back on the fall of men’s soccer requires balance from the soon-to-be seventh-year boss. It’s impossible to escape the disappointment that comes with coming up one game short of a national championship. The Irish were right on the doorstep, but couldn’t put it all together that fateful Monday night in Kentucky.

Yet still, the processes that got Notre Dame to the national title game offer a laundry list of positives for Riley to reflect upon. After an up-and-down 2022, the Irish soldiered through the fall on the back of an impressive balance of talent and poise.

Such composure is a mark of achievement in Riley’s quest to marshal the Irish into a “tournament team.” Winning games in the regular season is one thing. But can you hold your nerve when your season hangs in the balance? 

Riley was impressed by his team’s mettle in such situations throughout November and December. A loss to Louisville in the first round of the ACC Tournament offered a harsh start to the postseason after the team ended the regular season on a 10-match unbeaten run, but it also snapped the squad awake ahead of its quest for the bigger prize in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead of reeling from the loss, Riley’s squad would kindle a new spark in the team’s collective psyche, going on a run to the College Cup in part thanks to back-to-back penalty shootout victories. 

“[Louisville] was kind of that gut check moment, like ‘Okay, do you really believe?’” Riley said. “The only way you can show that is by what you do. I think that was cool to see that response, because you really don’t know until that next day, that next game … [The team] was pissed, but at the same time they had a real belief.”

Notre Dame now looks ahead to next season with a nice mix of returning experience and new promise in tow. 

There will be losses to mitigate — Burns will graduate as part of a transformative 2020 class that also included stalwart goalkeeper Bryan Dowd and clutch forward Daniel Russo. Gone will also be metronomic midfielder Ethan O’Brien and veteran defender Mo Williams.

But the Irish also have foundational pieces in place at every level of the field. Junior Josh Ramsey excelled in a centerback tandem with sophomore Mitch Ferguson last year, and they’ll be joined along the backline by another junior returnee in fullback Kyle Genenbacher. Junior Bryce Boneau was selected in the MLS SuperDraft but instead will return for another year in the middle of the park. In Riley’s eyes, for all of Boneau’s impressive accolades, the best could still be yet to come.

“He’s playing at such a high standard so it’s not going to be these big jumps,” said Riley. “But I think something he’s been working on is his passing, precision and [adding] different clubs to his bag … and I think the goalscoring that you saw when we did move him up front, I think he can provide that from midfield a little more.”

Top goalscorer and junior forward Eno Nto returned to his native England over the offseason, but junior forward Matthew Roou will be back in South Bend to anchor Notre Dame’s offense. Roou tallied 10 goals last year, good for a personal best. While the rest of the Irish attack remains more up in the air, additional support can be expected from Boneau and forward-thinking sophomore midfielder KK Baffour (two goals and seven assists in 2023).

Progression through Riley’s six years as the head coach hasn’t been linear, but it has been distinct. The program hadn’t played in an NCAA quarterfinal in a half-decade when the former program alum first took over. It reached those heights in his first year as boss. Notre Dame had been to the College Cup just once in nearly 40 years of program history prior to his tenure. It has now been to two in a three-year stretch.

But the final goal remains elusive. The shadow of the team’s 2013 national championship banner looms large over the Alumni Stadium field, casting an overhanging reminder of what the program can be. Irish men’s soccer is closer than ever to providing its lone banner company. And Riley is determined to take the final steps necessary to reach the top, the only way he knows how: the Notre Dame way.

“Obviously, winning a lot of games and championships is always the goal,” Riley said. “But can we continue to do the way we’ve done and [at a] high level as the rest of the world changes a little bit I think will be a fun challenge for us.”