On a cold night in Louisville, KY, Notre Dame men’s soccer had a chance at revenge. It was a shot at redemption for a 2021 national semifinal loss to Clemson in a penalty kick shootout. Instead, the night wound up as bitter as it was freezing.
A team accustomed to relying on its elite defense couldn’t do anything on offense until the dam eventually broke. (Editorial note: Gee, why does that sound so familiar…?). The Irish (13-3-6, 6-0-2 ACC) fell to the Tigers (15-3-5, 4-2-2 ACC) once again, losing 2-1 in a game that didn’t feel that close.
As has become characteristic of Notre Dame this postseason, they were content to be patient and play defense, waiting for an opportunistic scoring chance or just holding the line until star goalie Bryan Dowd could make the difference in PKs. But that plan went out the window when Clemson drilled a shot from just outside the 18-yard box in the 27th minute, sneaking it past the outstretched arms of Dowd.
That marked the first time Notre Dame trailed in this year’s College Cup, and it showed. The Irish are built to play in a pressure cooker, a style that doesn’t work so well when you’re the only one under pressure. They started getting aggressive on offense after falling into a deficit and earned a few scoring chances. Even so, a team not used to forcing the issue offensively was out of its depth against a team that it beat 3-2 at home this season.
Among the moments that fans, players, and coaches alike will look back on and wince are a push in the Clemson 18-yard box that would have given Notre Dame a PK to tie in the 37th minute, but the referees looked the other way on a night when both teams were chippy. There’s also senior defender Paddy Burns’ golden opportunity to score off the backside in the 56th minute, but his shot ricocheted off the crossbar.
Eventually the Irish took one too many risks and broke down defensively. A Clemson transition opportunity led to an all-too-easy goal off a pass right into the heart of Notre Dame’s 18-yard box to make the score 2-0.
Burns would end up netting a goal on a penalty kick in the 89th minute, but the remaining 60 seconds weren’t enough to complete a miracle comeback and force extra minutes as the Irish fell 2-1.
This season marked the first time Notre Dame has gone undefeated in conference play as an ACC member. This game also marked the first time the Irish have advanced to the College Cup final since winning the title in 2013. The senior Dowd, junior forward Eno Nto and sophomore midfielder KK Baffour were named to the All-Tournament team.
Until next season, Go Irish.