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Men’s Soccer: Irish kick off conference play

By Mike Monaco | Friday, September 21, 2012

National rankings. Undefeated record. Golden goals. For everything the No. 3 Irish have done so far this season, the squad has yet to embark on one gauntlet: conference play.

Notre Dame (7-0) enters that phase of its schedule Saturday when it squares off with Louisville in the Big East opener in Louisville, Ky.

Irish coach Bobby Clark said conference play represents a real test given the strength of the Big East, which has four teams in addition to Notre Dame in the Blue Division with undefeated records.

“The Big East has opened non-conference play very strongly so there’s no question it’s one of the strongest, if not the strongest, conference right now,” Clark said. “So we know that every game will be meaningful. The big thing with the Big East is there are no given games. You can’t tick it off that that’s going to be a win for us. No team can do that.”

The Irish enter their conference opener clicking on all cylinders. On Sunday, senior forward Ryan Finley headed home his team-leading fifth goal of the season in sudden-death overtime to defeat Michigan 1-0 on the road. The victory continued Notre Dame’s best start in Clark’s 12 seasons at the helm and its best start overall since 1987. The Irish have registered four shutouts in their seven games and the defense has not allowed a goal in its last 230 minutes of play. Clark said the key to keeping up the non-conference success as the schedule shifts to league action is embracing a game-by-game mentality.

“We have to take it one game at a time,” Clark said. “Every road game is always a challenge. If we’re going to look at ourselves as serious championship contenders, we have to go in against other teams that are good and be able to play.”

The Cardinals (4-3) will hit the pitch on a recent run of their own. With three wins in its last four games, Louisville has begun moving back up toward a ranking in the national polls. The Cardinals began the year ranked seventh in the NSCAA Coaches rankings but dropped out entirely after losing two of their first three games, including the season opener to No. 1 Maryland, 3-0. Clark said the Cardinals are arguably Notre Dame’s best opponent thus far.

“They are a very good team,” Clark said. “They lost a couple of real tough games in tough places. … This will be possibly be our hardest challenge to date, or at least among the top two.”

Notre Dame’s defense will be tasked with handling a Louisville offense that has scored 10 goals in its last four games. Senior defender Greg Cochrane leads the team in scoring with three goals and seven points, but the Cardinals feature a balanced attack out of their 4-2-3-1 formation.

Irish junior defender Luke Mishu, along with the rest of the Notre Dame back line, allowed just four total shots on goal against Michigan and Michigan State en route to a pair of shutouts. Mishu was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week on Tuesday for his performances. Earlier in the season, both junior defender Andrew O’Malley and sophomore defender Max Lachowecki garnered the same honor. Clark said while the back four have been stout, defense is a total team effort.

“We don’t just defend in our half of the field,” Clark said. “It requires all 11 people and that’s the modern game. Nobody can take the luxury of not thinking about defending. … This is an entire 11-man effort to defend and that’s what it’s going to take if we do something at Louisville.”

The Irish open their conference campaign Saturday when they take on the Cardinals. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m at Cardinal Park.