Irish top Kentucky, advance to Round of 16
Tyler Reidy | Monday, November 20, 2023
Four ACC teams fell out of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship in Sunday’s Round of 32. Groups poised for lengthy postseason runs, such as 10th-seeded Wake Forest and 15th-seeded Duke, ended their seasons at home. At Alumni Stadium, Notre Dame avoided the same fate.
The Irish matched their tournament seed with a pair of goals, emerging with a 2-0 win against the Kentucky Wildcats. Junior midfielder Bryce Boneau and freshman midfielder Nolan Spicer each scored in their national tournament debuts, while senior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd, no stranger to the big dance, claimed his 9th clean sheet of the season.
“I think that’s the most important thing at this time of the year,” Irish head coach Chad Riley said of the blanking. “If you can get a shutout and move on, you’re very happy with the overall performance. We knew Kentucky — credit to them, they’re here for a reason. They’re a very good team and made the game very difficult, but I’m proud of the way our team handled it and continued to grow throughout the game.”
A key question of the match predicated on Notre Dame’s play to open the match. After an early exit in the ACC Quarterfinals, the Irish hadn’t played in exactly two weeks. Their second-round battle with Kentucky made for just their fourth game in 32 days.
“It’s always a little tricky when you haven’t played a game for that long,” Riley said. “I think there were some sort of game situation moments on their direct play that woke us up a little bit. But after that, we settled into the game well and overall put in a good performance.”
The Wildcats, who had beaten top-five seeds Marshall and West Virginia in the regular season, appeared ready for the Irish. In the first 15 minutes especially, Kentucky threatened for the opening goal. Alfred Baafi forced a diving Dowd to make 2 of his 3 saves early on, also sending a rebound chance over the bar.
Boneau discussed the Wildcat attack from his perspective in Notre Dame’s interior midfield.
“They love the long ball, and it’s a big credit to our back line — they were fantastic. Dealing with balls in the air just made our job as center mids easier,” he said. “But early on we were able to adjust for the long ball and I think we did a great job. As you can see, we kept the clean sheet which is great.”
Near the midway point of the first half, Notre Dame seized the run of play. Dominating possession time, the Irish found dangerous scoring chances from distance with senior forward Daniel Russo. His 27th-minute laser went off the crossbar after a leaping redirection from Kentucky keeper Casper Mols.
Still, Kentucky largely kept the Irish outside its 18-yard box and the match reached halftime without a score. However, Notre Dame created one in a hurry to open the final 45 minutes. Only 3:25 into the half, sophomore midfielder KK Baffour sprang Boneau on an angled run into the 18. A step ahead of his defender, Boneau finished the play professionally with a low shot that beat Mols.
According to Boneau, the scoring play began with some vocal assistance from senior defender Paddy Burns.
“It’s funny. I was moving out and I hear Paddy behind me yelling at me just to stop and stand still and let him go by me,” Boneau recalled. “KK [Baffour] got the ball and I found myself in a lot of space — credit to Paddy there and KK with a great ball to me. I just had to go and find the back of the net.”
For Boneau, doing that hasn’t been a problem recently. The All-ACC Third-Teamer now has 3 goals in two postseason matches after earning a brace in the conference tournament against Louisville.
“I couldn’t do it without these teammates,” Boneau said. “These guys have been giving me good looks and I’ve just found myself in the right spot at the right time. Just happy I can help out my team by getting some goals on the scoresheet.”
Doubling down on their pressure, the Irish added a second goal in the 79th minute. It came from Spicer, who played 60 minutes in his first national tournament game. Timing his run perfectly, Spicer split the Kentucky back line, chasing down a threaded pass from junior forward Michael Rossi. Mols challenged the youngster atop the 18, but Spicer smoothly dribbled around him and cashed in with his left foot.
For Chad Riley, Spicer’s smooth finish personified Notre Dame’s successfully relaxed attack in the second half.
“We got some good moments in the first half but didn’t connect that final pass to get a shot or connect the shot,” Riley said. “And so I think guys just knew to keep doing what you’re doing, just relax a little bit more in the box and then the goals will come.”
After one more Kentucky shot and corner kick, the final whistle blew. Notre Dame ended the match with 9 shots to Kentucky’s 8, owning 59% of possession too.
Up next, the Irish will host Western Michigan in the Round of 16. The nearby Broncos upset Duke in extra time Sunday afternoon with goals from two of the top scorers in the country. Western Michigan’s Charlie Sharp and Dylan Sing own 34 combined goals and will contest Notre Dame’s stout backline with their height.
“We know they’ll be physical, direct,” Riley said of the Broncos. “They’ll make us earn every moment, so we’ll be ready.”