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ND Women’s Soccer

O’Boyle: U-20 World Cup steals away Irish talent

| Wednesday, August 24, 2016

This isn’t a normal year for women’s college soccer.

Twenty-one of the best players in the country will miss the entire season to train with the United States squad for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea. Many more international players will miss the postseason when the tournament begins. Top teams across the country will be without some of their best players, and Notre Dame is among the teams taking the biggest hit in talent on the roster.

Freshman forward Jennifer Westendorf dodges an opponent during Notre Dame’s 1-0 win over Wisconsin at Alumni Stadium on Aug. 21.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer

Freshman forward Jennifer Westendorf dodges an opponent during Notre Dame’s 1-0 win over Wisconsin at Alumni Stadium on Aug. 21.

The Irish (2-0-0) have two players — junior midfielder Sabrina Flores and sophomore midfielder Natalie Jacobs — on the U.S. U-20 squad. Their absences alone might be manageable, but they become much more significant when you remember they coincide with the Irish having to replace a recruiting class ranked as the best in the country by TopDrawerSoccer in 2012. Three of last year’s back four and forward Anna Maria Gilbertson, who scored more than three times as many goals as any other player, have all graduated.

The lone defender who started more than half of Notre Dame’s contests last season? That’s junior left back Monica Flores. The forward who’ll be tasked with replacing Gilbertson’s output? Freshman Jennifer Westendorf. Each has been excellent in the opening two games of the season, highlighted by Westendorf’s superb opening goal against Wright State. But come the playoffs, they too will be in Papua New Guinea, representing Mexico and Brazil, respectively. Irish head coach Theresa Romagnolo will surely know that sooner or later she’ll have to start thinking about replacing two more of her most talented starters.

So far, though, the Irish seem to have had no difficulty in replacing some of their best players from 2015. The defense that lost Katie Naughton, Cari Roccaro and Brittany Von Rueden has yet to concede a goal, and if junior defender Ginny McGowan continues to play as well as she did against Wisconsin on Sunday, it should be in good hands.

Westendorf, a top-10 recruit, appears to be every bit as good as advertised and should ensure the scoreboard keeps ticking through the regular season. Even without her, the Irish options up front have shown promise. Senior striker Kaleigh Olmsted assisted both of Westendorf’s goals against Wright State and junior forward Karin Muya who missed the entirety of last season with a knee injury played the cross that led to Wisconsin’s own goal in Sunday’s encounter.  Junior forward Kaitlin Klawunder could also have an impact while senior midfielder Sandra Yu has the ability to fill in up top if necessary.

Still, the Irish are only two games into the season and it may be too early to see the effects the losses will bring. When the conference schedule begins and fitness is truly tested, it remains to be seen how the Irish will perform. A good performance in this week’s clash with No. 2 Michigan, though, and it will really look like Romagnolo’s side could be the real deal.

The Irish team motto for the 2016 season is, “fight for 29,” referencing the full 29-member squad that includes those players who will miss the season with the U.S. U-20 team. So far, the remaining players have fought well enough for a 2-0-0 start and a perfect defensive record. As the season goes on, will the Irish miss Sabrina Flores and Natalie Jacobs? Will they miss the four senior starters from 2015? Come the postseason, will they miss Westendorf and Monica Flores?  Those questions are impossible to answer with certainty at this juncture, but if it turns out that replacing key contributors at Notre Dame is as easy as it looks so far, this season could turn out a lot better than expected.

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

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel