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Men’s Soccer: Prime time

Sam Gans | Friday, September 23, 2011

No. 12 Notre Dame faces its biggest test of the season so far — in the Big East opener, no less — when it hosts the defending national runner-up and No. 3-ranked Louisville on Saturday.

The Irish (4-1-2) are on their first winning streak of the season, having won three straight matches. A large part of that success is improved team defensive play, with Notre Dame allowing just two total goals in the past three games after surrendering four in the previous three.

Senior defender Greg Klazura said there are a few different reasons for the recent improvement.

“Obviously a big [goal] of the back four is getting a shutout and maybe a little bit more — playing well on the field,” Klazura said. “I think everybody is playing well. [Senior goalkeeper] Will [Walsh] looks really sharp and is keeping us really organized.”

But the defense stepping up is not just attributed to the back four, Irish coach Bobby Clark said.

“I always say with the defense, it’s not just your defenders but the whole team defends and the whole team attacks,” Clark said. “If our midfielders aren’t getting good pressure on their midfield then it makes it very difficult for the defenders to do their job. And it always starts with our forwards [if they can give] pressure in their half.”

That strong team defense must continue if the Irish wish to have success against the Cardinals (6-1-0).

Louisville has not been shut out this season and has scored at least two goals in five games.

Senior forward Colin Rolfe and senior midfielder Nick DeLeon lead a potent Cardinals attack. Rolfe was one of three finalists for the Hermann Trophy awarded to the National Player of the Year last season and DeLeon was a first team all-Big East selection in 2010.

The Irish are focused on stopping the numerous threats Louisville offers.

“Louisville’s a very talented team,” Klazura said. “They’ve got a lot of dangerous players. We know they’re good with the ball in one-on-one matchups; they’re good moving the ball from side to side. So I think it’s going to be important as a team to keep the ball.”

Clark also recognizes the Cardinals’ skill in transition.

“They’re very dangerous in the break,” Clark said. “They pressure you very hard when you have the ball and they’re also strong in set pieces. They’re good in every department.”

The matchup is the Big East opener for each squad. Clark, however, is trying to approach it as a typical game.

“Obviously you’d like to win the league and you’d like to win the conference tournament and they’re certainly goals for the team I’m sure,” he said. “But I also think making it to the NCAA Tournament is the biggest of all aims and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s conference games or non-conference games.”

Given the recent history between the Irish and Cardinals, treating it as just another game might be easier said than done. Louisville defeated Notre Dame twice last season, winning in the regular season 2-0 and narrowly defeating the Irish 1-0 in the Big East semifinals.

The past results, along with the high ranking of both squads, give some extra meaning to this contest.

“I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we said it wasn’t a game with a little extra importance,” Klazura said. “There’s a lot there that’s on the table: our record, this is a huge game for the Big East, huge game for ranking, huge game for RPI and then when you lose to a team two times in a row, you kind of want to get them the third time.”

If all those factors aren’t enough to up the ante, the game will also be shown live nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.

Clark is hopeful the Notre Dame students will make a good showing to support the Irish on national television.

“Notre Dame is a great athletic school,” Clark said. “We’re on Fox Soccer Channel. We want to be shown as a university that we support our athletics. If you’re a soccer fan you must get out for this game. If you’re not a soccer fan, we need you. Notre Dame needs you for support to cheer the team on.”

The Irish and Cardinals are set to kickoff at 7 p.m. Saturday in Alumni Stadium in a critical early conference matchup.