ND Men’s Soccer
‘You have to be elite defensively’: Giacobello, Irish defense stepping up in College Cup run
Aidan Thomas | Thursday, December 9, 2021
After the five games of the 2021 season, the Notre Dame soccer team sat with a 1-3-1 record, giving up 1.8 goals per game. That stretch was punctuated by a 4-3 home loss to Michigan State, when the Irish gave up three second-half goals.
But Notre Dame, picked to finish last in the ACC, didn’t waver in their confidence.
“[Head coach Chad Riley] reminded us that teams that go all the way often have poor starts,” senior defender Ben Giacobello said. “We knew that just because of a poor start didn’t mean we weren’t a great team … We’ve been confident for a while now.”
Fast forward three months, and it’s become pretty clear that that confidence was justified. The Irish haven’t lost at home since that Michigan State debacle. They’ve dropped just two games overall — and only one in regulation. The Irish offense certainly did its part; leading up to the NCAA Tournament, they were boasting the fifth most prolific unit by goals per game. However, it was the defense that stepped up in a huge way.
“If you’re going to win in college soccer, you have to be elite defensively,” Giacobello said.
What does it mean to be ‘elite defensively’?
The Irish took that to heart, and then some. Notre Dame followed up the MSU defeat with 1-0 and 3-1 victories, before falling in overtime to Virginia Tech. After that, the Irish won six in a row, posting clean sheets in five of those contests. The stretch included ACC victories over Virginia, Clemson and Pitt. The latter was Notre Dame’s eventual Elite Eight opponent, and Clemson awaits the Irish in the College Cup.
“We just continued to get better. We’re not thinking of anything but having a growth mentality. The beginning results aren’t nearly as important as the end,” Giacobello noted. “We’ve stayed true to who we are, continued to work, fixed our flaws and gotten better at our strengths.”
The Irish skidded just a little bit towards the finish, tying Duke 1-1 and falling to UNC 3-1 on the road. However, when the calendar flipped to November and postseason play began, Notre Dame turned up the heat.
The fifth seed in the ACC Tournament, the Irish began with a 1-0 squeaker over No. 12 NC State. Against No. 4 Louisville, Notre Dame battled to a scoreless draw and emerged victorious in penalty kicks. Impressively, the Irish swept the shootout, with sophomore goalkeeper Bryan Dowd saving all three shots. Notre Dame rode that momentum into the semis and championship, boasting 2-0 wins over Pitt and Duke to claim the program’s first ACC championship.
A College Cup run at Alumni
This stunning late-season surge boosted the Irish to the fourth overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, allowing them to host three NCAA Tournament games at their own Alumni Stadium. They kept up their shutout streak, notching victories of 3-0 and 2-0 over Villanova and Wake Forest. That made it six straight games of shutout defense. While Dowd did his part, the Irish defense was relentless, allowing just 12 shots on target over six games. Giacobello and fellow senior Philip Quinton anchor a back four with freshman Josh Ramsey and sophomore Paddy Burns. Giacobello was quick to spread the credit:
“It’s the whole team. Our job is very easy when we have wingers running back, midfielders who win balls and strikers who apply good pressure,” the senior defenseman said. “It makes our job really easy. We’ve got players like Philip, Josh, Paddy and Dowd who make big plays in big moments.”
More impressively than just the shutout streak, however, is the resiliency of the Irish defense. It’s been over two months since Notre Dame surrendered a second-half goal, their last being Oct. 1. And when they finally gave up a first-half tally to Pitt in the Elite Eight, no confidence was lost. Instead, the Irish shut down the Panthers in the second half, allowing for Burns to eventually tie the game off a set piece. Notre Dame eventually won in a shootout, with Dowd saving two of four efforts in net.
“Going six games without giving up a goal is hard in itself. You give up that goal, and I think we had a really strong response,” Giacobello said of Notre Dame’s comeback. “We’re not expecting to not give up a goal every time — we know it might happen, but we are going to make that as hard as possible.”
Party like it’s 2013?
That victory brought the Irish to their first College Cup since 2013 when they brought home the national title. They’ll take on Clemson in Cary, North Carolina — the site where the Irish already brought home a conference title. The slow start? That’s long since forgotten; the Irish have given up 0.50 goals per game since the Michigan State loss. That number shrinks to 0.35 if you exclude the UNC defeat.
For Giacobello, he grew up rooting for the Irish, and the chance to bring national championship glory to South Bend is not one he takes for granted.
“I’ve been a big Notre Dame fan since I was younger. It’s been my dream school. It would be unbelievable,” he said. “Everything about the University makes you want to win for them. The University demands excellence so I’d like to help the team provide that.”