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ND Men’s Soccer

608 minutes and counting: Irish shutout streak continues in clinical Sweet 16 victory

| Monday, November 29, 2021

The Notre Dame men’s soccer team didn’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving at home like most students at the university, but that’s generally great news in the world of collegiate soccer.

Because it means you’re still playing.

Playing during the holidays

After a Sweet 16 victory on Sunday evening, head coach Chad Riley discussed his team’s preparation following last Sunday’s Round of 32 win over Villanova.

“That first Wednesday training [after the Villanova game] was just phenomenal. The quality is there – it’s the right balance of intensity and enjoyment. The week of preparation was fantastic and having a meal together as a team is always such an honor,” Riley said of preparing on the week of the holiday. “We always say if we’re practicing around Thanksgiving and the campus is quiet and empty, what an honor it is to be competing at this time.”

Notre Dame played like they practiced, pitching their sixth straight shutout in clinical fashion. The Irish held Wake Forest to one shot on target, which came in the first eight minutes of the game, and slotted home two of their four on-goal efforts – one in each half – to secure a 2-0 win.

Wake Forest has been a mainstay at this stage of the tournament in recent years. Sunday marked their seventh consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16. The Demon Deacons notched a 5-1 record in their previous six Sweet 16 games – they went to the Final Four three times. But they ran into a defensive buzz saw in South Bend.

Irish in peak form

Entering Sunday, Notre Dame had dominated defensively. Starting with their preliminary contest in the ACC Tournament, the Irish had blanked five consecutive opponents. Even in a penalty kick shootout in the ACC quarterfinals, Notre Dame’s goalkeeper Bryan Dowd stonewalled three straight shooters to keep the ball out of the net. Dowd’s heroics have helped, and the Irish field players have worked from the top down to keep the pressure off their sophomore keeper.

At forward, seniors Jack Lynn and Tyler Shea, and freshman Matthew Roou press exceptionally well, maintaining possession and disrupting potential counters before they start. In the midfield, graduate student Dawson McCartney leads an aggressive group that is quick to the ball and creates dangerous opportunities out wide for the Irish wings. Those same wingers, while lethal in the offensive zone, track back and shore up a strong Notre Dame backline. While senior Philip Quinton was the only individual on the defense to receive any All-ACC recognition – sliding in as a third-teamer – the Notre Dame unit has meshed seamlessly here in the homestretch.

“It was easy, to be honest,” Quinton said of the defense’s progress. “The early results [a 1-3-1 start to the season] were just trying to figure out our style of play and get on the same page. The backline gelled pretty early, and everyone learns from each other.”

Meanwhile, the offense hasn’t been too shabby either. Not too shabby being 48 goals on the season entering the matchup. That total ranked fifth in the nation and was tops in the ACC. While Notre Dame’s only goals in their first two ACC tournaments came via penalty kick, the Irish outscored their next three opponents 7-0. That included a thorough 3-0 domination in the Round of 32 against Villanova. After the ACC championship, Riley said the mentality of the team has remained the same – the Irish were picked last in the ACC in the preseason, and they’ve played with a chip on their shoulder all season.

“It was great. Credit to the guys – sometimes when you win something big like the ACC Tournament, there’s a sense of relief, but I don’t think there was. I think there was this sense of accomplishment and justification for the team they knew they were,” Riley said.

Omar gives Irish halftime advantage

For the majority of the first 45 minutes, the Irish controlled the tempo. The ball stayed largely out of dangerous areas for the first seven minutes, but as the clock ticked on, Notre Dame began to create some chances. Wake Forest actually notched the first on-goal effort of the evening. However, it necessitated an easy save from Dowd, who distributed, and the Irish went on a prolonged attack. Roou had a shot blocked, and Shea delivered a couple of dangerous crosses that failed to produce a major chance.

After Wake Forest briefly reversed the game flow, earning a corner kick that produced nothing, the Irish seized control. Lynn caused some chaos with some nifty dribbling on the right side of the box, but it was about a minute later that the Irish finally put a shot on net. The ball bounced back out to Shea on the right and the winger brought the ball back before finding senior captain midfielder Mohamed Omar at the top of the box.

Omar received the pass with his back to goal, created space with a nice touch towards the center, and delivered a gorgeous lefty strike that curled around the Wake Forest freshman keeper Trace Alphin, off the left post and in.

That gave Notre Dame a 1-0 lead that they’d maintain through the half. Wake Forest had two solid chances throughout the remaining minutes of the period. First, Hosel Kijima ripped a 20-yard effort just wide right of the post. Then, in the final minute of the play, the Demon Deacons created a chance off one of their three first-half corner kicks. Dowd punched it away in a crowd, but the ball bounced towards the edge of the box. Tareq Shihab’s half-volley effort flew well over the crossbar, and the game went to halftime.

Irish add insurance, stifle Demon Deacons

Wake Forest came out with renewed intensity to start the half, and they produced an immediate chance in the first twenty seconds. A cross from the left side forced a dive from Dowd who collected it and allowed no rebound. Notre Dame got their own chance to double the lead shortly after, as sophomore forward Daniel Russo broke in alone on Trace Alphin. However the chance came from a sharp angle, and Alphin did well to cut it down, making a nifty kick save.

About six minutes into the second half, the Demon Deacons really poured on some pressure. In a rare occurrence, Wake Forest sustained possession on the dribble down near the end line, and a dangerous cross forced an emergence clearance out of bounds for a Wake Forest corner kick. The Demon Deacons got a pair of corners in a 30-second span, but neither resulted in an on-target opportunity. A cross made its way to the far post, across the face of the goal, but Dowd had no issue outleaping a Wake Forest attacker to secure the ball.

It’s just a commitment from everyone from the forwards to the backline to do the dirty work,” Quinton said. “As a program, that’s what we pride ourselves on, so it was just about getting back to the basics and then defending for your life.”

Five minutes later,  just over 11 minutes into the second half, the Irish did double their lead. This time, it was freshman Matthew Roou building up a counterattack as he worked the ball up the left side. Roou dribbled towards the middle and was fouled hard as he dished the ball off to Shea. However, no call was made, and Roou regained his feet and charged the back post. While he did so, Shea flicked it to junior midfielder Ethan O’Brien who delivered the ball perfectly into the stride of defenseman Ben Giacobello. The senior delivered a beauty of a one-touch cross and Roou was at the other end of it to finish with a strong header past a diving Alphin.

I got fouled pretty hard, I was kind of looking for the foul, but they didn’t give it. I got up, and I always trust Ben out there on the right to get it in there,” Roou noted on the development of the second goal. “He sent it and it hung up perfectly for me to finish. Needed that one.”

On to Pitt

Notre Dame had won nine straight when scoring two or more goals, and they hadn’t allowed an opposing team to find the back of the net since the regular-season finale. That combination makes for a tough comeback, and Wake Forest simply never really challenged the Irish. Their best chance came immediately after Roou’s goal, as Wake nearly generated a 1-on-1 look against Dowd from about 10 yards out. However, Giacobello closed quickly and got his foot in front of the shot to block the dangerous opportunity. That chance came with 32 minutes to play; the next Demon Deacons effort to come remotely near Dowd was a header with 7:55 remaining on the clock. That shot bounced harmlessly wide left, and the clean sheet remained for the Irish defense.

The Irish headed out a couple of decent crosses, but no serious chances materialized for Wake Forest as the clock ticked down, and Notre Dame saw out a sixth straight shutout victory. They’ve now held opponents scoreless for 608 consecutive minutes of game time.

“I think we tried to slow them down our best and did a decent job. Made some last-minute stops there in the second half,” Riley said. “It all comes from a collective idea of how to press them and how to defend, and the guys executed it really well, from the strikers all the way back to the goalkeepers.”

A decent job is a bit of an understatement. Wake Forest had scored two or more goals in eleven straight games, dating back to Oct. 1. Interestingly enough, that’s the last time that Notre Dame gave up a second-half goal. The Irish have been nothing short of clinical in seeing out results once in the lead. They’ll look to maintain that momentum next Saturday, as they host yet another tournament contest. This one is an Elite Eight clash with No. 5 Pitt. The Irish beat the Panthers 1-0 in double overtime in the regular season and then triumphed 2-0 in the ACC Tournament semifinals. On Saturday, they’ll have to do it for the third time against a team that has scored nine goals in two NCAA Tournament games. Kickoff will be at 5 p.m.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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