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Mens Soccer: Chemistry proves the key for Irish

Pat Leonard | Monday, November 10, 2003

Come on, Irish. Just try it. Everybody’s doing it.

It’s the trend in the quarterfinals of the men’s soccer Big East conference tournament – games stay close, regardless of seed and venue, and the outcome is decided by a spectacular individual effort at the end.

St. John’s is doing it. The top-seeded Red Storm nicked No. 8 Villanova by a score of just 2-1.

Rutgers is doing it. The No. 4 Scarlet Knights needed 94 minutes before they could put away No. 5 Seton Hall, 1-0, with an overtime goal from a freshman defenseman.

Virginia Tech even took it a step further. The No. 2 Hokies were upset in penalty kicks by No. 7 Providence.

So why isn’t Notre Dame following the trend? Why did the Irish, depleted in the midfield by injury, find it necessary to control play for the majority of the Connecticut game Sunday in a convincing, 2-0 win?

The answer is team chemistry. While coaches and players on any given team will talk about it, the cooperation of 11 men on a soccer field often does not click the way it should. On Sunday, that happened for Irish coach Bobby Clark and the Notre Dame squad. The Irish eliminated the Huskies from the tournament that they will be hosting in Storrs, Conn. this weekend.

“This was as complete a performance as we’ve had this year,” Clark said. “We had a lot of good performances, but I just thought we really got a hold of the game.”

They sure did.

Notre Dame outshot Connecticut 15-8 and had 11 corner kicks to the Huskies’ one. The offense and defense both pushed up as part of a more aggressive game plan.

“In a lot of the games when we’ve lost, we’ve scored and gone ahead and kind of fallen back into our own half,” Clark said. “That was our plan. We wanted to play the game in their half, and I think the players performed well.”

Save a few careless turnovers and one free kick in which freshman midfielder Nate Norman could not find his spot in the set play, Notre Dame never appeared unfamiliar, confused or hesitant.

And it has been that way all season. They play with a confidence that comes with constant practice and knowledge of teammates’ strengths and tendencies.

“We play a lot of shadow in practice,” Clark said. “We split up the team and play without opposition. They should have an idea of what runs they should be making all the time.”

Saying it and doing it are two different things, especially when using a 15-man rotation. But the Irish have done it.

Due to injuries to senior midfielders Filipo Chillemi and Chad Riley, Notre Dame has rotated young players even more frequently into the system. So far, the substitutions have not changed the on-field chemistry for the worse.

“At one point today we had three freshmen in the midfield,” Clark said.

Ian Etherington, Greg Dalby and Norman manned the middle while senior captain Greg Martin took a break in the first half.

The freshmen do impress, but maybe upperclassman leadership from forwards Justin Detter, Devon Prescod and Tony Megna or defensemen Jack Stewart, Kevin Richards and Kevin Goldthwaite cancels out the inexperience of some of the younger players.

Or maybe a team ranked No. 5 in the nation has such luck sometimes.

Regardless, Notre Dame has 11 shutouts on the season. It avenged its previous loss to Connecticut in the regular season (1-0, OT), and the Irish now travel east.

If Notre Dame plays smart against Providence Friday afternoon, they have a good shot at reaching the final round. But the players must have that same instinctive awareness they displayed Sunday.

“The thing with soccer is it’s not that you’re calling plays,” Clark said. “It’s just all happening, so you have to be thinking all the time.”

Right now, it seems the rest of the Big East is thinking while the Irish are doing. They are not following the trend of winning by a nose. They are pulling away, winning and looking like the better team.

The opinions of this column are those of the author and not necessarily The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at [email protected]