Though the U.S. men’s national team bowed out of the 2022 World Cup over the weekend, football fever remains strong around the globe as the “world’s greatest sporting event” continues. It wasn’t the case this year, but Fighting Irish fans often have an extra reason to pay attention to the World Cup, as Notre Dame soccer stars have historically been well-represented on both men’s and women’s national teams.
This week, From the Archives looked back at some of Notre Dame’s past World Cup participants. Starting with MLS and USMNT standout Matt Besler, we then highlight the extraordinary success of Notre Dame women’s soccer in the 1990s, which led to many Fighting Irish soccer players entering the international stage. While we lament this year’s disappointing finish for the American men, perhaps a return to the historical success of the women’s national team — in which Notre Dame alums have played a central role — will bring hope for the Women’s World Cup coming next summer.
Matt Besler: From a game-winning penalty kick to a World Cup appearance
There is no doubt that soccer star Matt Besler left a mark on Notre Dame’s men’s soccer program. The defender from Overland Park, Kansas, was a standout player and student from 2005 to 2008 and racked up several awards during his time at the University.
“Besler, who made 73 starts and 90 appearances as a defender in his Notre Dame career, was a two-time team captain, three-time member of the All-Big East team and an All-American his senior season,” wrote Joseph Monardo (‘14).
Besler’s storied career got off to a fast start. His first goal for the Fighting Irish occurred during his freshman year and was the fifth and final shot of an intense penalty shoot-out against Syracuse to advance to the second round of the Big East Tournament.
“It’s definitely exciting. I probably couldn’t have asked for a better first goal of my college career,” Besler (‘09) said.
Besler and the Irish appeared in the NCAA Sweet 16 three years in a row before losing in a season-ending match against Northwestern his senior year. Despite this disappointing end, Besler managed to lead the team to the Big East regular season title for the second straight year.
The leadership and success Besler found in college resulted in his eighth overall selection in the 2009 MLS draft by the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City). Just two years into his professional career, Besler was recognized as a 2011 MLS All-Star.
Shortly after, Besler joined the U.S. men’s national team and represented his country from 2013 to 2017, making an appearance in the 2014 World Cup.
“Defender Matt Besler started every match for the United States at this year’s World Cup and just recently signed a Designated Player contract to remain reigning champion Sporting Kansas City’s captain for the long haul,” Alex Carson (‘17) reported in a 2014 Observer article.
Besler played twelve years with Sporting Kansas City before finishing his professional career with FC Austin in 2021. Besler now serves as an ambassador for the Blue KC Sporting Samaritan program and remains an inspiration to Notre Dame players and fans around the country.
Irish women’s soccer in the 1990s: Future World Cup stars shine
The 1990s was a seminal decade for women’s soccer at Notre Dame. After becoming a varsity sport in 1988, few could have predicted its rapid rise to prominence.
In 1994, the young Irish team would make its first big splash of the decade. Three freshmen — Holly Manthei, Kate Markgraf (née Sobrero), and Julie Maund (‘98) — all found their way into the starting lineup and led the team all the way to the national title game, although the game resulted in a blowout loss to North Carolina.
The spark from 1994 carried over into the following season, and once again it was a freshman at the forefront of the effort. Taking advantage of the opportunity to replace injured All-American midfielder Cindy Daws (‘97), future Irish legend Shannon Boxx (‘99), a freshman, scored seven goals during the season.
Boxx’s efforts in 1995 were epitomized by her performance against Wisconsin. Head coach Chris Petrucelli said he knew the day felt different going in: “At the beginning of the game I looked over and they [Wisconsin] were very excited about playing. The difference was we were a lot more excited. We were very prepared to play today.” Boxx was easily the most jubilant player on the field after tallying a hat trick in Notre Dame’s shutout win.
The 1995 season was capped off in dramatic fashion as Notre Dame trounced the University of Portland in a third overtime period to secure the Fighting Irish’s first national championship in women’s soccer. Cindy Daws put it best: “I’ve heard some people say we won ugly. It doesn’t matter though because we’re national champions.”
Notre Dame would make it back to the national title game in 1996 and 1999, finishing as a runner-up on both occasions. While the soccer program as a whole achieved outstanding success in the 1990s, the star power on Notre Dame’s roster during this decade would also translate into individual glory on the international stage moving into the 2000s.
Notre Dame women in the World Cup
Strong of Heart: Profiles of Notre Dame Athletics | Aug. 25, 1998 | Joe Cavato | Sept. 6, 1999 | Brian Kessler | Aug. 22, 2012 | Matthew Robison | Sept. 8, 2015 | Renee Griffin | Researched by Thomas Dobbs
Following her graduation from Notre Dame, Kate Markgraf (‘98) prepared for an extraordinary opportunity to compete for a World Cup. After appearing in 97 games and scoring seven goals while donning blue and gold, Markgraf accustomed herself to an unfamiliar role on the national team: the bench.
However, Markgraf quickly cemented herself as a strong contributor to the national team, helping the United States claim the 1999 World Cup after a 5-4 shootout victory against China. Markgraf would ultimately appear in 12 matches across appearances in three World Cups. She ended her soccer career in 2010 after 201 international appearances, becoming only the 10th woman in FIFA history to eclipse the 200 game mark.
Markgraf, however, was farm from the only Notre Dame woman to compete on the international stage. Only a college junior at the time, Monica Gonzalez (‘01) competed at the 1999 World Cup for the Mexican national team. Gonzalez, too, achieved a distinguished international career, competing in 83 games and scoring 10 goals for Mexico.
Perhaps no international match more prominently featured Notre Dame soccer legends than the 2012 Olympics semifinal matchup between Canada and the United States. Representing Canada were former Notre Dame standouts Melissa Tancredi (‘05) and Candace Chapman (‘06), while Shannon Boxx (‘99) represented the Stars and Stripes.
Then-Notre Dame women’s soccer coach Randy Waldrum commented on the matchup, stating that “[the game] was great for women’s soccer and … great for Notre Dame to have that kind of representation.”
Boxx has become perhaps the most decorated Notre Dame soccer player of all time, winning a gold medal in three straight Olympic Games from 2004-2012. Boxx also helped the U.S. win the 2015 World Cup, the American’s first victory since the 1999 victory featuring Markgraf. In January 2022, Boxx was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Reflecting on her storied career, Boxx shared that sacrifices of others “pushed [her] to want to be successful” and that Notre Dame offered her the “first time [she] represented something bigger than just a little club team or myself.”
While Boxx, Markgraf, and Gonzalez have all retired, perhaps the Notre Dame women’s trip this fall to the NCAA quarterfinals, their first since the 2012 season, is a sign that the next generation of Irish talent is once again primed to play on the international stage.