Irish open season with victory over Wildcats, Russo makes good impression
Greg McKenna | Friday, September 18, 2020
Freshman Daniel Russo scored on debut as Notre Dame began its eight-game 2020 slate with a scrappy 1-0 win over Kentucky on Thursday night in a nearly empty Alumni stadium.
Notre Dame (1-0, ACC) head coach Chad Riley admitted that given the uncertainty surrounding the season just a few weeks ago, his team was thrilled just to have the opportunity to play a competitive match.
“We talked about that before the game,” he said. “The team’s done such a great job from last March through now … with school, with the kind of remote soccer, with the discipline and doing what it needs to take to compete right now. So yeah, it was a good, rewarding night on a lot of fronts.”
With no in-person attendance, the game got off to a cagey start. Wildcats’ sophomore forward Eythor Bjorogolfsson recorded the game’s first shot on target just over 20 minutes in following a slick counterattack. The Norwegian led Kentucky (0-1, ACC) with four game-winning goals in 2019, but he failed to catch Irish senior goalkeeper Keagan McLaughlin out at his near post.
McLaughlin assumed the starting spot previously held by Duncan Turnbull, who now plays professionally for Portsmouth after graduating last year. Riley said he was impressed with McLaughlin’s confidence against a good attacking team in difficult goalkeeping conditions.
“I thought Keagan McLoughlin had a really good night,” he said. “Kentucky gets the ball in the box quick. They take shots from distance. It was a wet night. It was cold. So for … his second game in six months, I thought he played very well.”
The Irish began to find their attacking boots midway through the first half. Senior midfielder Aiden McFadden glanced a delicately chipped cutback narrowly over the bar just a few minutes before Senan Farrelly also sent a clean header over the top on one of the four corners the Irish earned in the first half.
Kentucky had a good chance with just 30 seconds left in the half, but Brandon McManus could only poke a well-worked cutback straight at McLaughlin for a simple save.
Notre Dame took the attacking initiative after the break. Mohamed Omar fired a long-range strike that narrowly cleared the crossbar before the Irish had a penalty shout turned down by the referee when McFadden was pushed from behind while challenging for a header.
Freshman forward Russo finally broke the deadlock in the 62nd minute following a choppy few minutes. McFadden’s delivery on Notre Dame’s only corner in the second half left Kentucky goalkeeper Enrique Facusse rooted to his line, allowing Jackson, New Jersey native Russo to head home emphatically from close range.
“[Russo’s] hit the ground running,” Riley said. “Kentucky’s a very good team. [They have] good central defenders. For him to put a performance in like he did tonight I think speaks volumes about his potential.”
The game came to life as the Wildcats were forced to open up in pursuit of an equalizer, presenting a couple of opportunities for Notre Dame on the counter. Jack Lynn, who was named to the ACC preseason watch-list, had a decent chance with almost 80 minutes gone. Lynn briefly got past the last Wildcat defender, but he had to take his shot early and dragged it wide. Freshman midfielder Matthew Radivojsa led all players with four shots, and he forced Facusse into a diving save with a decent effort from outside the area in the 84th minute.
Kentucky made the Irish defend deep in their own penalty area, but the Wildcats failed to manage a single shot in the final 13 minutes until they fired a free-kick harmlessly into the wall with just over 30 seconds to play.
Riley was impressed with the composure exuded by graduate student Senan Farrelly and the rest of the Irish backline.
“Even when they were near our goal, there was no panic,” he said. “I think the whole backline … did a really good job of dealing with Kentucky being a little bit more direct at times and dealing with longer … balls into the box.”
Despite several hard challenges committed by both sides, no yellow cards were issued as the second half wore on.
Riley was proud of the way his team channeled its intensity throughout the evening and said he approved of the referee’s performance.
“All the teams in the country have been playing against themselves for so long that we’re all getting a little testy, so … I think the ref handled it pretty well,” he said. “As the saying goes, you want fire in the belly and ice in the veins. … We want to make sure we’re always competing and we’re tough but at the same time staying focused, and I think for the most part the guys did a decent job with that.”
Riley said he is pleased to start the shortened season with a win over a marquee opponent and is looking forward to a schedule that almost exclusively features top opposition.
“[That’s] a very good Kentucky team,” he said. “And the cool part about our fall is these are all … teams that are likely top-20 in the country, so it’ll be a really good season to test us and to grow through.”
Notre Dame returns to action Sept. 26 at Alumni Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.