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Men’s Soccer: Top-seeded Notre Dame hosts Michigan State

Joe Monardo | Friday, November 16, 2012

The No. 3 Irish have achieved quantifiable success this season to a level that marks the 2012 season as one of the program’s best. But all the year’s achievements won’t help the Irish on Sunday when they put their season on the line against Michigan State.

Having captured the Big East Championship title last week, Notre Dame (16-3-1, 5-2-1 Big East) will open its national tournament schedule as the No. 1 overall seed. The conference championship – the third in Notre Dame’s history – and the top national seed have already taken a back seat to what lies ahead, Irish coach Bobby Clark said.

“We put it in the cupboard,” he said of the conference achievement. “And we will put the No. 1 seed in the cupboard. The seed was a reward for what we did in the past, it’s what we do today and what we do on Sunday that’s important. That was a reward for past deeds, this is a completely different thing we’re involved in. What you get if you do well in this tournament, you get a national championship. That’s the reward you get for winning five games … The No. 1 seed is all behind us. If it’s not then it becomes an obstacle for us.”

Notre Dame returns from a first-round bye to welcome in a Michigan State squad that also has a conference title to its name. The Spartans (12-9-1, 3-3-0 Big Ten) won the Big Ten tournament before defeating Cleveland State 2-1 in the opening round of their NCAA tournament campaign. Notre Dame notched a 2-0 home victory against the Spartans in the regular season on Sept. 14.

“I think they will be a very good opponent,” Irish assistant coach B.J. Craig said. “They are always a good game for us, number one. They are playing with a little bit of a different shape than when we played them before, but the last time we played them we won the game late. I think it will be similar this time. Boss [Clark] always says, ‘it’s what we do.’ And I think that’s key. If we play well and do it right I think we’ll be in a good spot when it comes down to the stretch.”

Michigan State has rattled off four straight victories and has won seven of its last nine contests. Since replacing redshirt junior Bryce Dobbins in goal, Michigan State freshman Zach Bennett has accumulated a 9-3 record and owns a goals-against average of 0.83.

“They’ve won their [conference] tournament so they are coming in really hot,” Craig said. “They’ve got a real blue-collar mentality to them right now. They work very hard for each other and maybe that was the missing thing before. A big change is their goalkeeper, too, so we’ve got a different look there. It will be a fun game. Hopefully we’ll get a great crowd out for it. I think that would be great for us if we could put on a good show for college soccer.”

Notre Dame comes into the game averaging 2.40 goals per outing – sixth-best in the nation. Irish senior forward Ryan Finley leads the team with 20 goals and 44 points and ranks second nationally in goals scored. The Big East Offensive Player of the Year, Finley scored the overtime game-winner in the conference final to help Notre Dame capture the Big East crown. Another veteran leader for the Irish, senior midfielder and captain Dillon Powers, is a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award and has 17 points on the year.

As the top seed, Notre Dame would have home-field advantage through the quarterfinal round, should the team advance that far. In Alumni Stadium this year the Irish are 8-0-0, a statistic that offers no guarantees for Sunday, Clark said.

“The home field never wins you a game. The only thing that wins you the game is you,” he said. “It’s going to come down to how we play. As I said to our team at the start of the year, I said ‘If we play properly we need to fear no one … if we play badly – if we don’t come out and play – we should fear everyone.’ It’s as simple as that.”

Notre Dame will begin its pursuit of the program’s first national championship Sunday at 2 p.m. The Irish will host Michigan State in second-round play in Alumni Stadium.

Contact Joseph Monardo at [email protected]