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Irish build momentum, dominate Cougars

On Wednesday night at Alumni Stadium, the Notre Dame men’s soccer squad took the field against the Chicago State Cougars, seeking to notch another win after a 2-1 victory over Virginia. The match provided the opportunity for a tune-up match with more ACC play on the horizon. 

The Irish got off to a blazing start — establishing control of possession and feeding off the excitement and energy of the crowd. It wouldn’t take long for their efforts to be reflected in the score sheet. In the 3rd minute, junior halfback Paddy Burns notched his first shot home off an assist from sophomore forward Matthew Roou. The Irish did not let the Cougars up from this point, meticulously and methodically controlling the ball and moving up and down the pitch.

With the halfbacks playing at offensively aggressive positions, the Irish continued to swing balls into the penalty box and test the back line of CSU. Freshman midfielder KK Baffour was instrumental in the first half, winning numerous battles against taller Cougar players and dutifully controlling position in the center of the field. Burns would continue to make his presence known in this half as well, firing off two of the nine Irish shots in the first 45 minutes. 

Notre Dame’s persistence and tactical mastery culminated in a second goal in the 30th minute scored by graduate student midfielder Ben Giacobello, whose one-timer off a deflection sent a roar through the crowd. The goal was converted off a crucial Irish corner kick, with the Irish earning seven others throughout the match.

The rest of the first half was characterized by the spectacular play of sophomore forward Eno Nto, whose pace and craftiness in off-ball movement caused fits for Cougar defenders. Nto’s discipline on the ball and shifty movement would win the Irish a free kick very close to the box that went unconverted in the 34th minute. Nto would then be denied a place on the score sheet in the 37th minute when, despite his strong run, he was ruled offside.

The first half concluded with a well-place corner from junior midfielder Matthew Radivojsa, but again the Irish couldn’t convert, keeping their halftime advantage at 2-0.

The second half kicked off with the same Irish dominance. Despite a collision involving graduate student defender Mo Williams in the 48th minute, it went swimmingly for the Irish. The 51st minute brought a prime scoring opportunity for senior defender Reese Mayer, with his header just missing the mark.

The Irish again controlled possession, led by the work rate of Baffour. Chicago State was forced to blindly clear the ball, and their back line showed obvious signs of distress. The second half pace slowed significantly, relative to the frantic pace of the first half. A third Irish goal was disallowed and the teams more or less mounted no significant attack for a large portion of the half. One performance that didn’t show up in the box score was that of freshman forward Wyatt Borso, who won 50/50 balls and maneuvered around Chicago State defenders with regularity.

Finally, in the 74th minute, the Irish rediscovered the back of the net. Daniel Russo, a junior forward, would net a goal off a free kick set, with assists from Nto and Matthew Radivojsa. Only a minute later, Burns would leave his mark on the game with a screamer of a goal from outside the box off of one touch. The goal was assisted by junior forward Daniel Russo. Burns’ electrifying goal provided the boost the Irish needed to close out the match. The final score of 4-0 shines for a team that was only averaging 1.4 goals per game prior to this game. The Irish seemed to find many answers about their identity out on the Alumni pitch. 

Despite several different contributions, the story of this game will of course be that of Burns, whose highlight-reel second goal is an early contender for the goal of the season for this team. To add to the majesty of his performance, Burns’ parents were in the Alumni stands for the first time in his Notre Dame career, all the way from Northern Ireland.

However, Burns does not want himself to be the only story of Wednesday’s success. Burns credited the side’s freshmen contributors, calling them “unbelievable.” The junior defender added: “[The] maturity of their performances and how they act off the pitch as well…has been really impressive.”

Head coach Chad Riley echoed his halfback’s sentiments. “Our program wants to be a place where young players come and develop, but they have to earn it,” Riley noted. “All those who played tonight earned their minutes.” The freshmen, with another set of strong performances tonight, should continue to see those minutes tick up.

With the Irish now sporting a two-game winning streak, and a crucial game against UNC on the horizon for Saturday, Riley’s squad hopes to continue to ride their newfound momentum to success after a sluggish start to the season. Coach Riley wants to push his team to approach each game as an opportunity for improvement. “You need to know you got better, and every time you win your belief grows a little bit more,” Riley said. “It’s the idea of how do we grow from this game going forward to the next one.”

Burns seems committed to his coach’s goals for consistent evolution. “You want to have a team of winners…the more wins we can put in a row, the more momentum we will build, and the more formidable we will become,” he said.

Burns also said he is ready for the next challenge against the Tar Heels. “It is tough to win ACC games, and for us, it’s about winning the battle in front of your face. We will not look past UNC,” he said.

Coach Riley and the Irish, now again above .500 at 3-2-1, are back in action this Saturday at 7 PM against North Carolina at Alumni Stadium.

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