Leon Brown tallied his team-leading third goal of the season in the win over North Carolina.

IRISH EXTRA: Irish Rookies Keynote Win Versus North Carolina

Sept. 27, 2014

When University of Notre Dame men’s soccer player Jeffrey Farina saw teammate Jon Gallagher drive down the left side in the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s soccer game against No. 8 North Carolina Friday night, he immediately sprinted over from the right side.

“Jon and I have grown our chemistry over the last few games,” Farina said. “I know when he gets down that line, he likes to cross the near post. I set up my defender, like I was going back post. When he turned his head, I cut in front of him and was able to get a touch and finish.”

Farina took a pass from Gallagher and used his left foot and a half-stride advantage to blast in a stunning goal to give the Fighting Irish a 1-0 edge on the Tar Heels.

Head coach Bobby Clark saw his defending national champion Fighting Irish (4-1-2) go on to post a 2-0 victory against North Carolina (5-3-0), a lightning-quick team that pressed the Irish throughout the game.

Two things stood out about Farina’s goal:
1. The degree of difficulty for Farina, using his outside (left) foot to smack in the goal at full sprint from eight yards away.

2. The remarkable chemistry displayed by Farina and Gallagher to make the goal possible occurred between two freshmen.

Notre Dame faces a similar degree of difficulty in order to earn a return trip this season to the College Cup, but the talent level and chemistry clearly give the Irish a bright future.

Here are key areas that may determine if the Irish are hoisting the national championship trophy at the end of this season:

THE CHAMPIONSHIP PATH: Notre Dame’s players know what it takes to be the last team standing. The experience of last season’s national championship gives the Irish a map, and they have the hunger to crush the roadblock of complacency.

Andrew O’Malley, a senior tri-captain from West Chester, Pa. (Salesianum School), said the Irish have been able to take what they needed to take from last season and apply it to this season.

“The experience is just kind of there,” O’Malley said. “It’s not something you actively think about. The glory is something you need to ignore and purposely put behind you, but that was easy. This team, every player is committed to winning another title. We were over winning the national title the day after we did it.”

What Notre Dame has taken from the national title experience is how the little things contribute to the big picture. The Irish gained an appreciation of the value of working hard, doing the things that get a uniform and shins dirty and bruised, playing a complete game, and making sure the blue jersey comes with a blue-collar mentality.

That blue jersey? It also comes with a target, but O’Malley said the Irish are used to the extra bruises from opponents that come with having Notre Dame emblazoned on your chest.

“We’re used to having a target on our back,” O’Malley said. “Just being Notre Dame, a lot of guys get up to play you. It’s definitely bigger this year, coming off of a national championship year. Playing with a target is easy, because this team scraps for games.”

A BRIGHT FUTURE: Farina and Gallagher give Notre Dame one of the top freshman 1-2 punches in the nation.

Not many freshmen can make a dramatic impact in a power conference like the ACC, but Farina, a forward from Winnetka, Ill. (New Trier), and Gallagher, a forward from Dundalk, Ireland (Greens Farms Academy [Conn.]), have the talent to be on the pitch for the Irish when it matters the most.

Farina and Gallagher not only have talent, but they also have confidence, and drive.

“If you can play, you can play,” O’Malley said of Farina and Gallagher. “There are a lot of players who can’t play at this level as freshmen, but there are also a lot of players who can’t play at this level as sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

“You have to have the technical aspect, you have to have the mental aspect, you have to be composed on the field. You have to be able to handle the lights and 4,000 fans. The guys who have all of that, those are the guys who can play. This freshman class has the talent, and they have what it takes to play. They’re special.”

Seniors Leon Brown and Vince Cicciarelli, in particular, have been mentoring Farina and Gallagher, but the freshmen are savvy enough to know on their own how to become impact players right away.

“We know we have to grow chemistry in a hurry,” Farina said. “You develop chemistry by just playing together and doing extra work. Even just hanging out together, those things help us grow out chemistry and that really helps.

“We also have confidence and believe in our ability to play. You have to prove to the older guys on the team, first, that you can play. Then, once you do that, you just need to be yourself.”

Clark said the Irish won’t rush Farina, Gallagher and the other freshmen.

“If they can keep hungry and keep working … a lot depends on their attitude,” Clark said of Farina and Gallagher. “But looking at them from August through now, they both have very good attitudes and work very hard. I like the way they go about their business. I’m confident that they will continue to improve through their four years.”

THE GREAT WALL: North Carolina outshot Notre Dame 12-7 on Friday, but Irish goalkeeper Patrick Wall helped the Irish lock down their third shutout of the season. Wall, a fifth-year senior, made several spectacular saves and finished with a season-high six stops.

“Pat Wall does it every week,” Clark said. “He’s got great feet. He kicks the ball well. He handles the ball well. He’s calm. He’s like an extra coach in your back four.

“There’s no question he was one of the reasons we won the national championship. There’s no question he’s one of the reasons we won the game against North Carolina. He’s a game-changer and that’s what a good goalkeeper is about. Some games he doesn’t make a lot of saves, but his concentration is so good, he makes the saves he needs to make.”

A ROUGH ROAD: The Irish played four of their first six games on the road, and have played five ranked teams. It’s a brutal start, but one that may enable the Irish to have a forceful finish.

“The past four years I’ve been here, we’ve always had a schedule like this,” O’Malley said. “We’re really not used to playing unranked teams. Even the ones we do play are tournament-type teams. Being battle-tested early definitely is an advantage. When you go to the tournament, then, it’s just another game. It’s not a level of competition you haven’t faced before.”

AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT: Against North Carolina, the Irish maximized the chances they had. Farina scored in the 37th minute off assists by Gallagher and Connor Klekota. Brown scored in the 71st minute off assists by Luke Mishu and Klekota. Those were the only two times North Carolina goalkeeper Brendan Moore had save opportunities.

North Carolina applied fierce pressure on the Irish. Notre Dame couldn’t play its usual midfield game and that took away chances for the Irish to have more time on the ball. Ball speed and focus are key areas for the Irish in order to claim more NCAA glory.

“I don’t think there’s any question we can play better,” Clark said. “It wasn’t one of our best playing games. It was a game we were able to dig out and win and that’s important. It’s important to win games when you don’t always play well.”

O’Malley said he’s confident the Irish will be able to improve their ball speed and make quicker decisions.

“There’s a lot to improve on, but we’re aware of it and we’re moving forward to keep that dominating possession-style game that we’re used to,” O’Malley said. “This team hasn’t even begun to hit its stride. Last year we had a lot more chances and weren’t as effective in front of the goal. This team has more of a killer instinct. We have a lot more effectiveness up top and more of a go-for-the-throat attitude.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent