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Women’s Soccer: For opponents, weaknesses are hard to find

Bill Brink | Friday, December 7, 2007

It’s Nov. 30, and it’s 13 degrees outside. Every part of my body is frozen solid except for my mouth, which my second cup of hot chocolate mercilessly scorched. My knee joints are frozen in the bent position. But the cold didn’t bother the Irish – judging by the way Notre Dame is playing against Duke, it could have been July.

The Irish ran all over the Blue Devils and made a good Duke team look ineffective and slow. Watching the Irish play, they brought one phrase to mind: These girls are good.

Let’s not get too carried away, however. They allowed Duke to score twice in the second half – once after Notre Dame failed to clear a corner kick and once on a long shot from a midfielder they left wide open. The Irish aren’t lights-out. But finding and exploiting Notre Dame’s weaknesses is a tough thing for opposing teams to do, and in that respect, the Irish are solid.

There are no glaring deficiencies for opponents to attack. Earlier in the season, teams may have focused on the goalkeeping. Opponents would have been wise to pressure in the offensive third and take shot after shot, hoping one would slip through. Senior keeper Lauren Karas, however, threw out any hints of weakness in the past two games. She made multiple saves against North Carolina in the round of 16 and stopped a Duke breakaway in the first five minutes of the quarterfinal game with a diving save to her right.

Karas looked right at home stopping the shot. She approached the ball calmly and fluidly, reacting on instinct to the direction of the shot. She looked comfortable between the posts.

Earlier in the season, teams may have tried to exploit the Irish back line. Center back Carrie Dew still was not 100 percent after an ACL injury last season and the defense started two freshmen, Julie Scheidler and Lauren Fowlkes. Fowlkes, especially, would have been a soft spot, considering she moved from midfield to the back line in the beginning of the season.

Now, the defense keeps Karas from seeing much action and allows the offense to control the ball for much of the game. Dew is healthy and has returned to her previous form. Fowlkes has settled in at the center back position, as has Scheidler at right back. At left back, Elise Weber not only plays good defense but uses her experience at midfield, where she played for two years at Wisconsin before transferring to Notre Dame, to her advantage.

Against Duke, Weber made numerous trips up the left sideline and at times became a de facto fourth midfielder, giving the potent Irish forwards a catalyst. Break off a midfielder and cover Weber, and Duke had to leave one less defender on forwards Brittany Bock, Michele Weissenhofer and Kerri Hanks, an unfavorable proposition. Allow Weber to roam the left sideline and she had all day to set up crosses into the box for the forwards to attack.

The midfield has seen many faces this season; the Irish have great depth at the position. Ashley Jones, Amanda Cinalli and Courtney Rosen all have great feet, and against Duke they deflected pass after pass from their defenders to the forwards. Cinalli had injury problems earlier this season but of late has played better than ever.

There’s no chance of opponents stopping the forwards – all they can do is hope to slow them down. Bock and Hanks have combined for 30 goals and 24 assists this year, and Hanks presents teams with a deadly threat on corner kicks, penalty kicks and set-play situations. Weissenhofer only has eight goals because an ankle injury slowed her down this season, but four of them have come in the NCAA tournament.

Without a weak spot to penetrate, opponents will have to react to Notre Dame’s quick attack and unyielding defense. Should the Irish gain control of the game early, it’s not likely they will relinquish it.

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

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