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Men’s Soccer: Clark wants ‘fire’ to top rust in battle with Illinois-Chicago

Eric Retter | Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It’s been a long time.

No. 12 Notre Dame hasn’t played a game since its 2-1 loss to Rutgers Oct. 28 in the second round of the Big East tournament – 18 days ago – and it will have its biggest game of the season tonight against Illinois-Chicago at 7 p.m. at Alumni Field.

The Flames (13-5-2) looked impressive in their first-round victory, knocking off Western Illinois 3-0.

The biggest question going into tomorrow’s matchup is whether or not the Irish will be rusty. With a layover between games that rivals the off-season, one can’t help but wonder if it will take Notre Dame some time to regain their legs, so to speak.

Notre Dame has performed better this year on shorter rest. For the first month of the season, the Irish played games on Fridays and Sundays. In their Sunday contests, Notre Dame was 3-1 and knocked off Creighton and Indiana on consecutive Sabbaths – both of whom were ranked No. 8 at the time.

In the Friday games, after four full days between contests, Notre Dame was 1-2-1.

After the Irish began playing their bi-weekly games on Wednesdays and Saturdays – where there was a more even spacing between games – they were 4-1-1 with three days between games and 5-1 with two.

And although Notre Dame dominated the tempo of its games and outshot opponents all season, even in losses to South Florida and UAB, the statistic still warrants mentioning.

Irish coach Bobby Clark said he felt the team had had a “fantastic” focus in practice this week, but admitted there’s only one way to determine how the Irish progressed in the break.

“The only way we’re going to find is by playing a game,” he said. “You can tell me tomorrow whether we’re sharper [or not].”

In the last two-and-a-half weeks, a lot has happened. Senior midfielder Greg Dalby and junior striker Joseph Lapira – who leads the nation in goals – were named Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy semifinalists, and each won the Big East Player of the Year at his respective position.

Still, they haven’t played a game in a long time.

Yes, the Irish did play an intrasquad scrimmage two Saturdays ago, but that game lacked the atmosphere a second-round playoff match will have.

“It’s never quite the same when you play against yourselves,” Clark said.

More likely than not, the speculation about rust and time off will prove to be nothing. Notre Dame is an experienced, senior-laden team that has attacked each game as a mature, focused unit. At times, it has played with almost mechanical efficiency.

The long break between the conference tournament finale and the NCAA Championship opening – which all teams experience to some degree, especially the ones like the Irish who received a first-round bye – could even be what the Irish need.

Senior goalkeeper Chris Cahill, who the Notre Dame defense often leaves as a spectator, has said he gets more work and sees better shots in practice. He’s certainly had a lot of that lately.

The Irish have had a chance to rest and recover from the season, and Clark has noticed a spark developing in the lull.

“We’re hungry to play, which is exciting,” he said. “Once we get into a game, we could be in very good shape.”

Notre Dame has all the pieces to make a deep run through the NCAA bracket. Led by Lapira’s 20 scores, the Irish are tied for 13th in the country in goals per game. The Irish have consistently controlled midfield, and Cahill – who has 10 shutouts – has stopped the shots that trickle through the Notre Dame defense.

Still, one can’t help but wonder how the Irish will start off, especially against Illinois-Chicago, a team that already has a tournament game under its belt and a shut out against Western Illinois (a team that scored the third most goals in the nation this year).

Tonight, look for the first 15 minutes – where the Irish have thrived all season – to be an indication of how the last two-and-a-half weeks have gone and how the next two-and-a-half will go.

If the Irish come out shaky, UIC might just be able to steal a game.

If they come out strong, the sky’s the limit.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Eric Retter at eretter@nd.edu