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Men’s Soccer: Irish stumble late, miss NCAA tourney

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

They spent time ranked in the top-10 nationally, they posted six shutouts, they sent three players to Major League Soccer and they played some of the best soccer Irish coach Bobby Clark said he has seen in his 11 years at Notre Dame. But the 2011 installment of the Irish, despite all its talent and sometimes spectacular play, failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament after losing in the first round of the Big East tournament.

“At the end of the day, [the accolades] matter,” Clark said. “You don’t get a lot of points in soccer for style. It’s not gymnastics. You’ve got to win your games, and at the end of the day we didn’t do enough of that.”

The No. 9 Irish (9-5-4, 5-3-1 Big East) opened the season with a scoreless draw at home with No. 15 Indiana before picking up one win, one loss and one tie in their next three games. Then the Irish, sitting at 1-2-1 on the season, embarked on a four-game winning streak in which they captured every decision with a one-goal advantage. In the final game of the streak the Irish earned their most high-profile win of the season with a 1-0 defeat of No. 3 Louisville at Notre Dame.

“It was a good win, but to be honest with you, I hate to say it, but I think we felt we should be able to take on any team at Alumni Stadium,” Clark said. “Louisville is a very good team, and we played so many good teams on our schedule. It was a good win, but I don’t think we were completely surprised by it.”

After climbing back into top-10 with the defeat of the Cardinals, the Irish endured a four-game winless streak in which they fell to St. John’s in double-overtime and played Northwestern and No. 1 Connecticut to ties in back-to-back double-overtime games before dropping a decision to Marquette.

The Irish were able to record victories in four of their final five contests and earn a No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, but the inability to consistently win close games ultimately defined Notre Dame’s season. The Irish failed to advance in the Big East tournament, falling 1-0 to Villanova, and found themselves outside of the field of 48 for the NCAA tournament.

“It was a disappointing finish, a funny way to [end] the season, even though we finished 20th in the final rankings … Somehow, we weren’t able to deliver when it counted,” Clark said. “We played well, but we didn’t deliver. There were a lot of games … We somehow found ways to lose.”

Still, despite the disappointing final result, Clark said he thinks this year’s team would have performed well in the national tournament had they qualified.

“We played very well – it was no question one of the best playing teams I have ever had the pleasure of coaching at Notre Dame, they maybe played the best soccer,” he said.
“I was really proud of last year’s team because they played some superb soccer. But at the same time I felt sorry for the boys because I felt that had this team gone into the tournament, we could have done some serious damage.”

Having lost a host of starters to graduation, including MLS-bound former Irish defenders Aaron Maund and Greg Klazura and midfielder Brendan King, the Irish have plenty of holes to fill as they try to return to the NCAA tournament. Several spring exhibition games, including a 1-0 loss to the Mexico U-20 National team, provided an early glimpse of hope for the Irish.

“I always say, if you are a good team – and we were a good team – you are always going to be graduating good players,” Clark said. “I think we looked promising in the spring, but we will find that out in the fall.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu