The easy response to Notre Dame men’s soccer’s season-opening loss is an overreaction. Last year was a one-off, a fluke. Losing their top two goal-scorers may be too tall a task to overcome. Such thoughts became more prevalent as No. 4 Notre Dame fell to unranked Seattle, 3-1, in the opener. However, that final score was hardly indicative of the quality with which the Irish played. Notre Dame outshot the Redhawks 19-10 and out-possessed the visitors 52-48%. They doubled up Seattle in corner kicks, 10-5.
Despite this, the Redhawks defended well and forced a lot of shots off-target. The Irish saw a few efforts clank off the post and crossbar. Seattle’s All-Western Athletic Conference keeper Akili Kasim made three solid saves and controlled his box well throughout the contest. His offense did enough with their counter-attacks to score three times.
“Overall there were probably more positives than negatives, but it doesn’t feel that way when you lose a game,” Irish head coach Chad Riley said after the loss.
So are the overreactions justified?
It’s easy to forget how the Irish kicked off their season last year. Oft-forgotten after Notre Dame blitzed through the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament to reach the College Cup was the fact that Riley’s squad opened the season 1-3-1. Their vaunted defense gave up three goals in the season opener. Three games later, they dropped a 4-3 decision to Michigan State.
Of course, the Irish proceeded to win eight of their next nine games and ultimately reached college soccer’s ultimate stage, falling in penalty kicks in the semifinals. A season-opening loss, albeit a surprising one, is hardly reason to give up on this squad.
As Notre Dame gels defensively, there’s every reason to believe they’ll return to last year’s form. With sophomore Josh Ramsey and junior Paddy Burns, the Irish return two starters from last year’s strong backline. They also added an experienced center back transfer in Seton Hall’s Maurice Williams. That trio worked along with sophomore Kyle Genenbacher as the starting defensive quartet for the Irish last Thursday.
Junior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd returns as one of the top keepers in the country. He anchored the Irish during last year’s postseason return and he figures to do the same this year.
The Irish also got some offense from their defenders. Burns finished second on the team with four shots, while Genenbacher rang up his first career goal in the 81st minute. The Irish looked strong defensively in the opening 45 minutes, not allowing a shot on target. But they faltered in the three-goal second half.
“Seattle U was very clinical, but there were some key moments defensively where we could look at ourselves and do a better job,” Riley said.
Offensively, the Irish know they need to find some scoring after graduating Jack Lynn and Dawson McCartney, their two leading scorers from last fall. Sophomore forwards Matthew Roou and Eno Nto may take on some of that burden, alongside senior striker Daniel Russo. Roou led the team with five shots against Seattle, and Russo added a pair. Nto couldn’t deliver an on-target strike but created some opportunities for the Irish while working on the wing.
Another potential offensive X-factor is Matthew Radivojsa. After playing in 17 games as a freshman, Radivojsa missed last season with an injury. He came off the bench and provided a spark, delivering two quality shots. One forced a diving save and the other banged off the post. Riley noted that receiving quality minutes from the junior and sophomore midfielder Bryce Boneau, who is also coming off injury, was a good sign for the Irish.
Along with Boneau and Radivojsa, the Irish also got important minutes from their freshmen. Four of the six freshman field-position players saw action in the opener. Wyatt Borso led the way, starting and playing 43 minutes. Sebastian Green recorded a shot on target in his 37 minutes. KK Balfour and Mitch Ferguson also saw the field for the Irish.
“Some of it is positional,” Riley said, regarding the minute breakdown for the freshmen. “All the first-year guys did a great job coming in. It’s gonna be a class that’s going to feature a lot over their four years. They’ve had a great start.”
The road doesn’t get easier for Notre Dame. They play Michigan State and Indiana next week, with ACC play opening the following weekend. There will be a learning curve, but the Irish have a lot of experience from last year’s College Cup team and some new, young talent that will need to develop. But the potential and the ceiling is there. Despite an opening hiccup, a return to the College Cup remains the vision for the Irish. Riley emphasized that despite losing some of that goal-scoring and intangible leadership, he’s confident in the crew he has this fall.
“I think we have great leadership,” Riley said. “And they’re figuring out how to do it in their own way.”