Sept. 14, 2015
Bobby Clark stood silently in the Saturday night chill as he assessed the five shutouts his University of Notre Dame men’s soccer team owns five games into the 2015 campaign.
Then, the rugged Scottish game face gave way to a smile, and he chuckled.
“I got to 13,” Clark recalled of his playing days as a goalie. “So, there’s still some work to do. They’re not impressing me yet. Hopefully, they can break my record. That would make me happy. Long may they (the shutouts) continue.”
Notre Dame, ranked No. 2 in the NSCAA Coaches poll, pushed its record to 4-0-1 and stretched its shutout streak to five games Saturday night with a 1-0 victory against No. 9 Clemson to open Atlantic Coast Conference competition.
What is impressing college soccer observers is who the Irish have kept from posting bright lights on the scoreboard.
Notre Dame has shut out No. 4 Maryland, No. 10 Indiana, No. 24 USF, UAB and No. 9 Clemson.
“It’s the whole team,” Clark said of Notre Dame’s defensive success. “I was a goalkeeper. I had 13 consecutive shutouts many years ago. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the defense. It’s the whole team.
“Defending starts with the two forwards, how well they shut things down, how well the midfielders play,” Clark explained. “Ultimately, the responsibility does come down to the defenders and the goalkeeper, but it’s a team thing.
“I love a team that doesn’t concede a lot of goals. If you don’t lose a goal, you can’t lose a game. That’s the basis of a good team. We can grow the offense, because we have a lot of parts. Patrick Hodan is waiting to burst out.”
Notre Dame’s defense has only allowed nine shots on goal in the five games on 58 attempts.
One of the keys to Notre Dame’s defensive prowess is 6-foot-4 keeper Chris Hubbard.
“Chris has got a lovely, calm presence,” Clark said. “That’s one thing I would say about Chris. He has a nice presence to him. He’s a good goalkeeper. We actually have three good goalkeepers.”
Hubbard’s height and wingspan have taken away the aerial attack by opponents.
“The thing I love is we’re really strong in the air,” Hubbard said. “That’s the one thing that we had trouble with last year. We got scored upon a lot from crosses, especially headers in the air.
“Now, we’re so solid in the air. I think that’s huge. Since we’re so tight in the back, most of the other team’s shots are from far out and I can handle those.”
According to Hubbard, last season’s loss to Virginia on home turf that denied the Irish a chance to return to the NCAA final four and defend their national title ignited a driving force in this season’s Notre Dame team.
“I think last year, as much as we didn’t want to admit it, the year coming off the national championship . . . as much as we made it a focus not to get complacent, there was maybe a bit of complacency,” Hubbard said. “Everyone had been to the pinnacle. It was harder to motivate yourself. The loss to Virginia last year has really motivated us and has refocused us. We really focused ourselves in the last off-season on the defense. We’re very motivated.
“Coach has kind of pounded our defensive system in our brains pretty early,” Hubbard continued. “We always really focus on the block of eight–that’s our back four and our four midfielders. We always have a philosophy that nothing gets in between there. If the crosses come in, we’ll defend them all day. We all drop in, get in very tight and make sure there are no spaces in between. That’s one of the things we’re best at. We’re very comfortable defending. A lot of other teams can panic and you get really worried if you’re in their half for so long, but it really doesn’t faze us.”
Notre Dame’s communication has enabled the Irish to stay tight on defense and deny opposing attacks. Hubbard noticed early on that the offseason efforts on defense paid off.
“After our opening weekend, we played 110 minutes against Maryland, and they got off 22 shots, but none of them were close,” Hubbard said. “They were all from far out and all wide.
“Then, we went to IU (Indiana) and went 108 minutes, double overtime, and shut them out as well. We thought, ‘Wow, we just shut out two top-15 teams. Maybe our defense is real.'”
— Curt Rallo, special correspondent