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ND Men’s Soccer

Irish head to Sweet 16 after 3-0 win over Villanova

| Monday, November 22, 2021

Five postseason clashes and five clean sheets for the Notre Dame defense. It’s been a stretch as good as this program has seen in recent years, and it has the Irish dancing on and into the Sweet 16, after a Round of 32 victory over Villanova. The Irish dominated start to finish, with an 8-3 edge in shots on goal leading to a 3-0 final scoreline. Senior forward Jack Lynn, senior defender Ben Giacobello and sophomore defender Paddy Burns all found the back of the net. Burns and Giacobello were part of the sturdy backline that limited Villanova to three very saveable shots. 

“We’ve been very confident the entire year in our defensive play,” Giacobello said after the game. “We started the year 1-3-1. We took a long look and realized if we were going to do anything this year, we had to be elite defensively.”

An unexpected postseason battle

If anyone predicted this second-round battle at the beginning of the season, kudos to them, because virtually no expert had this one penciled in. Both teams were picked to finish last in their respective conferences. Notre Dame completely flipped the script en route to winning the ACC title and earning the No. 4 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova put together a solid 12-7-1 campaign, made it to the Big East tournament semifinals. That was enough for an at-large bid, and the Wildcats pulled the minor upset over Vermont in the opening round of the tournament. It was their first NCAA tournament win in program history.  

Irish start fast

Villanova was a team known for their defense entering the Round of 32 clash, having not won a game when giving up more than two goals. The Irish took the fight to the Wildcats in the first 45, pressuring Villanova keeper Carson Williams with great frequency. Senior forward Jack Lynn was his normal dangerous self up top for the Irish, taking three shots in the first half. Ultimately, it was the senior notching his ninth goal of the season. While Lynn got the goal, it was the assist that was the true highlight; sophomore defender Paddy Burns delivered a dime of a crossfield long ball, leading Lynn perfectly. Notre Dame’s leading goal-scorer settled and finished through a defender into the bottom left corner.

“I made a fading run, and me and Paddy actually locked eyes — he put his head down and laced it to me,” Lynn said of the buildup to his opening tally. “I knew immediately the center back was going to misjudge the ball, so I just had to focus on my first touch.” 

The pressure continued, as Notre Dame was relentless in their offensive attack. They took 10 corner kicks in the first half and outshot the Wildcats 10-3. The second goal came in the final 10 minutes, and Burns was again at the center of the action. After some build-up, graduate transfer Dawson McCartney played a dangerous pass to Burns in the left side of the box. A strong strike from the sophomore was saved by a diving Williams. However, the rebound popped up, and a flurry of chances followed. Lynn got to the ball first and sent a header off the crossbar. By the time the ball came back down, Burns had gotten back into the mix and connected on a diving header into a mostly open net. Head coach Chad Riley praised Burns’ efforts after the game while adding in a slight jab at the voters of the All-ACC team.

“He was one of the guys the ACC guys left off the list for some reason,” Riley said. “He’s an All-ACC type of player, and I think he did it again tonight.” 

Irish dominate defensively — again

Burns wasn’t the only snub as the Irish saw just one player named to the All-ACC third team, despite allowing the least goals in conference play. Five straight shutouts in postseason play are quite the way to play with a chip on your shoulder. The streak came after a disappointing 3-1 loss to finish the regular season against UNC. However, Giacobello spread the credit for the defensive effort to more than just the backline. 

“UNC, we felt that was a game we didn’t really show up for. Went to the ACC tournament — it starts top to bottom — the backline gets credit, the goalie gets credit,” Giacobello noted. “But we have forwards that press really well, midfielders that press, wingers that get back and make our job really easy.”

Villanova midfielder Lyam Mackinnon — the Wildcats’ leading scorer — was the only player that really generated any looks, with four shots, but only one got on target. The Irish closed rapidly on Villanova’s star, minimizing what he could and getting in front of his shots.

“You know there’s gonna be a couple of guys that you really have to keep an eye on,” Riley said of preparing for Mackinnon. “I think the team did a great job.”

The Irish came out of halftime and remained firmly in control. Villanova threw everything they could at the Irish, but they were limited to a single shot on goal, a 25-yard effort saved with ease by sophomore keeper Bryan Dowd. 

“Two-nothing doesn’t mean a lot in soccer,” Riley said. “We started to deal with some of their set pieces, and then Ben Giacobello getting the third goal was everything we needed.”

Giacobello’s game-sealing goal was a beauty, a half volley from 20 yards out that sliced into the near post for the 3-0 lead. It came with 5:08 remaining in the game and Villanova playing with 10 men due to a defender receiving his second yellow card of the game. Giacobello is a former midfielder and forward who has transitioned to outside back this season.

“I’ve had shots from out there a lot — had one against NC State that was close,” Giacobello said. “There was no way I was passing that one up.”

Irish avenge 2019, look ahead to Wake Forest

After Giacobello’s goal, the Irish closed out the victory comfortably, in front of a vocal crowd and student section.

“This is one of the best NCAA games I’ve seen in terms of student attendance, and that just lifts the guys tremendously,” Riley said after the game. 

This game meant a lot for the Irish. Two years ago, Notre Dame hosted a first-round NCAA tournament game and was upset by Wright State, 3-2. Giacobello and Lynn were both sophomores on that team and played in the game. Giacobello referenced that as well as two nail-biting home tournament wins his freshman year as valuable experience. 

“It’s huge. Having a group of guys that have experienced that [the freshman year run] and the Wright State game, we don’t take anything for granted,” the senior defender noted. “We come out here, we fight.”

Lynn added that the tournament is special.

“Today I woke up, and I could sense something different in the air, because you know every game could be your last… it means everything to me,” Lynn said. “Sophomore year was a big disappointment — we knew we could have gone further.” 

Now, the Irish are going further. They will host another tournament game Sunday, with the starting time yet to be announced. Their opponent is Wake Forest, an ACC foe the Irish didn’t see in the regular season. The Demon Deacons upset No. 13 Florida International 3-2 in their second-round game to earn the trip to South Bend.

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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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