ND Men’s Soccer
Notre Dame’s sizzling offense prepares to battle stingy Kentucky defense
Aidan Thomas | Thursday, September 2, 2021
Two games into the 2021 season, and the Notre Dame men’s soccer squad already looks improved from the 8-9 team from 2020 that missed the NCAA Tournament. The offense has been clicking, and save for a few tough sequences, the defense has been tough to penetrate. After a nail-biting 3-2 loss to No. 1 Indiana, in which the Irish gave up the game-tying goal with mere minutes left in regulation on a penalty kick, Notre Dame rebounded to thoroughly defeat Northern Illinois 2-0. The Irish now bring their 1-1 record on the road for another very tough non-conference battle, facing a Kentucky team that went to the third round of the NCAA Championships last spring.
“I think a chunk of the NCAA selection is RPI. Not only does it prepare you, but it’s a good game for a lot of reasons” head coach Chad Riley said of the early Indiana clash and tough non-conference schedule, “We’ve always felt a strong non-conference schedule prepares you, not only for your league but if you want to win national championships, you have to play good teams”.
As the Irish seek to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2018 – when they advanced to the Elite Eight – they will get an early measure of where they stand with a brutal non-conference slate. But, if early indications are anything to go by, Notre Dame looks primed for a vastly improved season.
In the Indiana game, the Irish peppered a Hoosiers’ squad that allowed only six goals last season and routinely gives up less than a goal per game. The Irish scored two, forced five saves out of the Indiana keeper, and sent a couple of other prime chances just off target. “To make those chances against a really good defensive team, you’d like to score a few more of those,” Riley noted of the offensive attack.
Senior forward Jack Lynn has been a force early, scoring against Indiana and firing off six shots in the Northern Illinois clash while recording an assist. Graduate student midfielder Dawson McCartney has also been front and center in the offensive attack, as he also recorded a goal against Indiana. However, more than individual standouts, the depth has been noticeable, with four different players scoring goals.
“We have a number of guys that can score now, so we can continue to have a balanced attack going forward,” Riley said.
In particular, freshman winger Eno Nto has looked dangerous in creating a series of chances for the Irish, as he also notched the opening tally against Northern Illinois from 20 yards out. Fellow freshman Matthew Roou also blasted a goal against the Huskies, as Notre Dame has looked lethal within the flow of play, notching 13 on-target chances in two games.
Defensively, despite the hiccups against Indiana, the Irish have looked solid, with sophomore Paddy Burns, senior Philip Quinton, and freshman Josh Ramsey having played every minute. Senior Ben Giacobello has been a contributor as a defensive midfielder, and freshman Kyle Genenbacher has looked fantastic in his minutes off the bench. Sophomore goalkeeper Bryan Dowd made five saves against Northern Illinois, and he’s looked solid as the anchor of the defensive unit.
“I think they’ve been great. They’re beginning to understand each other a little better” Riley noted, before referencing a couple of the goals allowed thus far. “The hard thing for them is a penalty kick, and a shot from 25 yards out…that’s not going to happen very often.”
Notre Dame will need the defense to be on point and their offense to capitalize on chances against a stingy Kentucky defense. The Wildcats are fresh off a 12-win season that included an NCAA Tournament run, and they’ve yet to allow a goal in two games this season. Ranked 21st, Kentucky tied No. 25, Coastal Carolina in a 0-0 thriller and then slammed Wright State, who eliminated Notre Dame in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, 3-0 in their home opener. Substitute Daniel Evans is a sparkplug for the Wildcats, as he came off the bench to play 52 minutes and lead the team with five shots. He also scored the opening goal of the contest in the first half. Forward Eythor Bjorgolfsson is another big threat, as he tallied the other two Kentucky goals against Wright State. Kentucky likes to play direct to their skilled forwards and apply pressure on opposing backlines.
However, it’s not a reckless approach, as Kentucky has given up just five shots on goal in two games. When shots have penetrated the backline, keeper Jan Hoffelner has been there for the save. In front of Hoffelner, Robert Screen, Luis Grassow, and Oliver Juul have been rock solid. Not only defensively, but in line with the direct style of play that Kentucky prefers, they get offensive contributions from their defenders. In the Wright State game, Grassow notched assists on the first two goals.
“They’re always going to make their home field a tough place to play. They’ll put us under pressure with some direct play” Riley said regarding the challenge that Kentucky poses. “It’s similar to our first two games with another really quality team, and we hope to continue to grow and get a result.”
For the Irish, a ranked road victory would mean a ton for a very young roster – and one that hasn’t seen a true road game with fans in two seasons. However, that added factor isn’t one that Riley is concerned about. “The good thing is a number of our guys have played in big moments, even some of the young guys. I think they’ll be prepared for that.”
The Irish play their first of two consecutive road games on Friday, September 3rd. They’ll kickoff versus Kentucky at 7:30 PM, and the game can be viewed on ESPN+.