The Notre Dame men’s soccer team landed in Philadelphia Wednesday intent of making history. The Irish make the program’s first appearance in the NCAA semifinals Friday night against New Mexico.
Irish sophomore Patrick Hodan is averaging a goal per game during the NCAA tournament this year.
Head coach Bobby Clark said making the College Cup weekend was a significant leap for the group he’s coached since 2001, but he and his players hope it’s a very brief pit stop on the way to a bigger achievement.
“I don’t know that they’ve reached their goal yet. I think very much their goal is to win a national championship,” Clark said. “The first stage is to make the tournament and the next stage is to get to the final four, but the ultimate goal of course is to win a national championship.”
The third-ranked Irish thought they had their best shot at winning it all a season ago when the went into the postseason with the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed. With four starters on the sideline due to injuries or previous red cards, they fell shor against eventual champion Indiana in the Round of 16.
Building to peak at the end of the season became an immediate goal for Notre Dame’s new group of leaders, and so far they seem to be on pace. The Irish have outscored opponents 10-3 in the first three tournament games.
“I think we shoulve been there a while ago to be honest,” Clark said about reaching the sport’s final weekend of play. “It’s hard to get to that final stage. …I think last years’ setback was a good incentive for them. I think that sparked them on right through the winter and especially in the summer.”
This year’s team scored four goals in each of its first two postseason games against Wisconsin and Wake Forest to reach the quarterfinals last Saturday on a freezing cold night in South Bend. There, sophomore Patrick Hodan scored his third goal in as many nights to seal a 2-1 win over Michigan State and punch his team’s ticket to Philadelphia.
Hodan cut through a pair of Spartan defenders at the top of the 18-yard box then sliced a shot off the inside post of the goal late in the first half.
“It started with good possession in the back and we were able to move the ball up the field and I was able to find a little space in the box to create a shot,” he said.
The sophomore budding star has become increasingly adept at finding space for himself this season. He played often as a freshman, but looked more confident with the ball at his feet this fall. Hodan finished second on the team in scoring behind senior captain Harrison Shipp with nine goals and five assists in 22 games.
Clark said Hodan and Shipp, a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy (college soccer’s Heisman), play a similar game and the younger is following in the footsteps of the accomplished senior.
“He can score goals and he can make goals,” Clark said. “He’s just a very good brain, a soccer brain. He’s such a smart player. He sees the game, and he sees it very quickly.”
Notre Dame’s offense, which ranks 12th nationally, will face a challenge Friday against a New Mexico team that has yet to give up a goal in its three tournament matches. On their way to Philadelphia, the Lobos(14-5-2) beat George Mason, Penn State and a Washington team coached by Clark’s son and former assistant at Notre Dame, Jamie Clark.
Clark said he was disappointed he won’t get to go head-to-head with his son in the semifinals, but if Notre Dame gets past New Mexico, they will see some familiar faces in the finals. Two conference opponents, Maryland and Virginia, make up the other half of the remaining bracket.
“You don’t have a lot of time to prepare between a Friday game and a Sunday game. At least you know whichever opponent gets through there, if we were fortunate enough to win our game, we both know each other pretty well,” Clark said.
Virginia is the only team with a win over Notre Dame this season, and the Cavaliers have beat them twice. They won 2-0 in an October regular season meeting and then knocked the Irish out of their first ACC tournament on penalty kicks in the semifinal round.
Hodan and his teammates are hoping to get a third shot at redemption later this weekend.
“That would be nice,” he said. “They’re a really good team, and it would be great if we got another chance to play them.”
Friday’s game against New Mexico is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU. Sunday’s championship game begins at 3 p.m. and is also on ESNPU.