Irish look for crucial road win vs. Louisville
Greg McKenna | Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Notre Dame will look to bounce back from two consecutive home losses this Sunday when the Irish (3-3-0, 3-3-0 ACC) travel to Louisville to face the No. 13 Cardinals (4-2-0, 4-2-0 ACC) at Dr. Mark & Cindy Lynn Stadium.
The last road trip of Notre Dame’s regular season comes off the back of an extremely disappointing end to the Irish’s lone homestand of the year. On Thursday, Wake Forest forward Shayla Smart snapped Notre Dame’s three-game winning streak with an 87th winner to prevent a scoreless draw before Clemson piled on the misery Sunday with a Megan Bornkamp goal six-and-a-half minutes from time to give the Tigers a 2-1 win. After entering the week with a No. 14 ranking from the United Soccer Coaches’ Poll, the Irish were dropped from the top-15 when the weekly rankings were released Monday.
Notre Dame out-possessed and outshot both the Demon Deacons and Clemson, but Irish head coach Nate Norman said he would not discount the late goals as simply unlucky.
“They both were actually similar plays,” he said. “They were services from longer, deeper areas that we just didn’t do well clearing. We need to have better balance in our backline in those scenarios and make sure we’re dealing with where players are at, who’s going for the ball and things like that.”
Sunday went much better for Louisville, as the Cardinals earned a crucial 1-0 win at Virginia Tech. The victory in Blacksburg virtually assured Louisville a spot in this year’s ACC tournament. With two conference games left for each team still in contention, the Cardinals currently sit in fourth place on 12 points, five points ahead of ninth-placed Wake Forest.
The situation is much more nervy for the Irish, who currently occupy the eighth and final qualifying spot with nine points. While Notre Dame closes out the season at No. 1 North Carolina, the Demon Deacons have two winnable games at home to Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, who currently reside seventh and 10th in the ACC table, respectively.
The immense difficulty of getting a result against UNC in Chapel Hill means the Louisville match looms even larger for the Irish. Norman said he would not attempt to downplay the significance of Sunday’s clash.
“I think you acknowledge [the pressure] and you just lean into it,” he said. “We got to embrace that pressure. We got to enjoy playing games when the stakes are high. That’s why you come and play college soccer at a really, really high level.”
Notre Dame is 11-4-1 all-time versus the Cardinals, but the fixture has been much more competitive of late. Last year the two programs played to a tense 0-0 draw at Alumni Stadium after two overtimes, and Louisville earned their first home win against the Irish on the sixth attempt when the Cardinals prevailed 2-0 in 2018. Current junior Cardinal midfielder Maisie Whitsett opened the scoring that September day.
Notre Dame also hosted the Cardinals in September in the Irish’s only exhibition match of the truncated season. While the Irish romped to a 4-0 victory, Norman is wary of taking too much out of the preseason matchup.
“I even know they are playing a very different way than they played us in that game,” he said. “That was kind of a wide-open game, which I think actually helped us a lot. I don’t know if we’ll have as much space as we had in that first game, and obviously, teams just get better.”
The Irish have recently struggled a bit in front of goal, scoring only five times on 84 shots during the four-game homestand.
“We just didn’t feel like we were as efficient as we need[ed] to be in front of goal,” said Norman. “I felt we probably were creating chances, but we just need[ed] to be more efficient. And then it actually burn[ed] us a little bit again against Wake Forest.”
Against Clemson, Norman tinkered with his first-team line-up to spark some more offensive production. Senior Sammi Fisher, who is second on the team with 3 goals, was moved from her usual position as an attacking-midfielder to the center-forward role. In the second half, however, Fisher went back to her more natural position in the midfield to make way for Ellie Ospeck, and the two linked up under a minute after the break for the equalizer and the first goal of Ospeck’s young career.
Norman was very pleased with how the freshman from Danville, California, was able to impact the game.
“Obviously she scored the goal, but just her activity level and her ability to get behind people and honestly make [Clemson] drop off gave us more space to play in front of them,” he said. “I thought she did a wonderful job.”
Considering the Irish faced a deficit twice, however, it was surprising to see one of the most prolific forwards in the country remain on the bench. Notre Dame’s Kiki Van Zanten entered the Clemson game first in the nation with 1.2 goals per game and currently leads the ACC with six goals in conference play, but she only featured for 14 minutes at the end of the first half against the Tigers.
When asked about Van Zanten’s lack of action, Norman emphasized that it had nothing to do with the talented striker herself.
“I think it end[ed] up being some of the tactical things that we ha[d] to deal with against Clemson,” he said. “Sometimes another player may just be doing well inside that game and you don’t do your normal rotation.”
Regardless of who plays upfront, the Irish will likely need to be clinical given Louisville’s stingy defensive record this season. The Cardinals are tied for sixth in the nation with a .500 goals-against average. Every Louisville victory has come via shutout, and senior goalkeeper Gabby Kouzelos has posted a save percentage of .921, which ranks fourth for all NCAA goalkeepers who have played five games or more.
The Cardinals also carry a substantial scoring threat. Senior midfielder Emina Ekic leads Louisville with five goals, which is tied for fifth-most in the country.
Norman said he expects a strong reaction from his squad as they look to put two disappointing results behind them.
“Hopefully we just have a really bad taste in our mouth from this past weekend, and we just go make sure we make it right,” he said.