Irish hold on against St. Louis, win season opener 3-2
Greg McKenna | Wednesday, September 4, 2019
In front of nearly 6,000 fans at Hermann Stadium in St. Louis on Saturday night, Notre Dame began their campaign to claim the program’s second national championship with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the Billikens (0-1). Six players earned their first official caps in an Irish (1-0) uniform, including freshman starters defender Mohammad Abualnadi — who scored during his debut — and midfielder Michael Pellegrino.
Head coach Chad Riley said he was impressed by the resilience of his underclassmen and the squad as a whole in handling the team’s first big test.
“I think the team did a great job,” he said. “I think the young guys did a good job to start. I think St. Louis has one of the better college soccer environments in the country. … [The Irish] are a little bit young, … [but] I think they’re going to have a great year.”
Riley praised his team for how they handled themselves on the field.
“To go into that environment, to play very well … anytime you’re away from home, you’re not going to get the calls you think you’re going to get, and I think we handled those moments really well,” he said.
Abualnadi opened his Notre Dame stat sheet just over a minute into his college career with a quintessential poacher’s goal. Sophomore forward Jack Lynn, returning to his hometown, earned a free kick for the Irish after enduring a sliding challenge about 30 yards from goal. Graduate student defender Felicien Dumas, one of the team’s three captains, forced St. Louis freshman goalkeeper Patrick Schulte to make a save down to the his left-hand side, but Schulte was unable to hold on and was helpless to prevent Abualnadi from thrashing the rebound past him to give the Irish the early advantage.
St. Louis would answer just before halftime, however. A long ball launched into the Irish penalty area was headed down by Billikens freshman defender Mujeeb Murana and fell kindly to teammate sophomore forward Chris Brunch, who rocketed home the equalizer from 12 yards. Riley admitted conceding before the break was especially frustrating.
“You don’t like to give up goals at the end of the first half because that [shows] a lack of concentration,” he said. “So I think we could have maybe cleared the ball a bit better, but that’s something that we need to experience in games to improve upon.”
However, the Irish would again take control of the game midway through the second half with two goals less than two minutes apart. After Irish senior keeper Duncan Turnbull did well to save a headed effort by the Billikens off a free kick, his quick distribution spawned an Irish counter. Graduate student forward Ian Aschieris soon received the ball on the right flank and delivered an incisive through ball to senior defender Spencer Farina just inside the penalty area. Farina then neatly cut it back for Lynn, who marked his homecoming appearance with his fourth career goal in the 65th minute.
Junior midfielder Aiden McFadden also promptly scored his fourth official goal in an Irish jersey. This time, Lynn would turn provider on another devastating counter-attack. Senior defender Senan Farrelly punished the Billikens for attempting to play out from the back, making a sharp interception just inside the Irish half. Farrelly immediately worked the ball to Lynn, who put McFadden through one-on-one with Schulte. The junior and West Chester, Pennsylvania, native made no mistake, clinically slotting the ball past the St. Louis goalkeeper’s outstretched left hand. It proved to be a fatal blow to the Billikens, who — despite outshooting Notre Dame on the night 11-8 — could not deal with the Irish’s ruthless play on the break.
Riley said the Irish’s success on the counter was no coincidence.
“I think that’s a scenario we like to be strong at,” he said. “We like to try to create chances quickly. I think there are going to be times in all soccer games [when] you don’t have the ball, but how can we transition from defending to attack and bridge a quality chance? We had some opportunities to do that. In the first half, we weren’t able to do it, so we talked about it at halftime. … I think the guys were very composed in those moments, and they did a great job at finishing plays off, so it was nice to see our attacking players get into better sync than we were in preseason. That, to be honest, was a problem, … so it was another step in our preparation.”
St. Louis would not go quietly, however. With just over 10 minutes to go, a forceful challenge from Lynn inside the St. Louis half caused tensions to boil over. In the aftermath of the lengthy altercation, Irish sophomore midfielder Mohamed Omar and Billiken freshman midfielder Kipp Keller were issued yellow cards, and St. Louis was granted a free kick near the halfway line. Sophomore defender Chase Niece sent a hopeful ball into the Irish penalty area that was met by a free sophomore midfielder John Klein, whose towering header past Turnbull set the stage for a grandstand finish.
Again, Riley was not pleased about the manner in which the goal was conceded, but acknowledged it was the sort of mistake to be expected early in the season.
“We don’t like to give up goals on set pieces,” he said. “I think there’s a little bit of miscommunication [on that play], and we don’t have someone challenge for ball. … That’s something that’s hard to replicate in training. You really need to work on those in games. … I think we can get a little better in that area.”
The Billikens continued to look for their second equalizer of the game, but the Irish held firm, which Riley credited in part to the abundance of leadership and experience in the squad.
“Those guys have all been a part of big games during their time at Notre Dame,” he said. “They’ve had leads. I think their composure just helped us see the game out. It got a little bit hectic there at the end. St. Louis got very direct [and] started lumping the ball into our box, and I think those guys … did a great job.”
Though Riley might expect his team to see more of the ball when Notre Dame plays host to both Seattle and Denver this weekend in the Mike Berticelli Memorial Tournament, he does not see a need to mess with what is working tactically.
When asked if he would stick to the 3-4-3 formation utilized in Saturday’s win, Riley said he sees that it works for the team but there are other things that are more important to a successful game.
“I think we always try to adjust to suit the guys and put them in a position to be successful, and I think … [the formation is] a good way to play, and I like the way it’s working for us,” he said. “At the end of the day, formations are important but it’s more about principles that we try to reinforce no matter the system we’re playing. But right now the guys are getting comfortable with it, and I think we’re starting to execute it pretty well.”
Kickoff for both the Seattle game Friday and the Denver game Sunday is scheduled for 7 p.m.