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Men’s Soccer: Ties carry ND into NCAA

Laura Myers | Thursday, May 13, 2010

Notre Dame began its 2009 season with a 1-0 exhibition win over Northwestern and ended it with a 3-1 loss to Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In between was an up-and-down season, but it proved momentous for the program in a number of ways.

“I always say that a successful season is when you play the last game and you’re playing for something very meaningful,” Irish coach Bobby Clark said. “Obviously when we played Northwestern, we actually played a very good game. I thought the players played their hearts out, but it wasn’t to be.”

The season began with the opening of Alumni Stadium, where then-No. 10 Notre Dame defeated No. 21 Michigan 5-0.

“Playing in the new stadium was fantastic,” Clark said. “I thought that made it very special in many ways. I don’t think any of the players at the opening game against Michigan will ever forget. It was a great game, playing against one of our rivals, beat them 5-0 on a beautiful evening in a beautiful new stadium.”

In that game, however, fifth-year captain Cory Rellas went down with a knee injury 10 minutes into the action. This disappointment was amplified just a few weeks later, when sophomore Aaron Maund and freshman Dillon Powers left to play in the under-20 World Cup in Suez, Egypt. This left the team shorthanded to begin Big East play.

“It was great for them, great for the program,” Clark said. “Not many teams even had one. Eleven college players in the 22 that went to Egypt, and for us to have two of them was impressive. But the downside of that was you lost them for four weeks.

“So then you go on … We had a few things in our face, but I thought the team stayed together. We had good depth in the squad.”

The Irish finished 8-3 in the Big East, coming in just behind Connecticut in the Blue Division standings. With its NCAA status in doubt, Notre Dame went into the Big East tournament with something to prove and ended up in the finals despite not winning a single game to get there.

The Irish tied South Florida 2-2 and Louisville 0-0 in the quarterfinals and semifinals, advancing through both games with shootouts.

Against St. John’s in the conference championship, the final score was again a 0-0 tie, but the Red Storm won the shootout and the title. However, Notre Dame’s play was good enough to earn an NCAA berth.

“It’s always good to go to the final of the Big East tournament, so that was another positive. Getting into the NCAAs for the ninth year in a row, not many teams can say that,” Clark said.

While the season ended with the loss to Northwestern, the team’s success did not end — three players were selected in the MLS draft in January, and one later signed a professional contract.

Forward Bright Dike, the Big East offensive player of the year, was drafted in the first round by the Columbus Crew. Midfielder Michael Thomas and left back Justin Morrow were drafted in the second round by the San Jose Earthquakes, though Thomas opted to go abroad and is now playing in the Swedish first division. Goalkeeper Andrew Quinn later signed with D.C. United.

“It wasn’t just they went to the pros — they all graduated, and I think that’s very telling,” Clark said. “To send a player to first-division in a European country, that’s a statement right there.”

Despite the loss of a strong senior class, Clark said he is cautiously optimistic about his 2010 team.

“You lose some very good players, but if you’re a good team you can be losing players every year and then if you’re doing your work right, you should be replacing them with good players,” Clark said.