April 1, 2016
by Tony Jones
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – With three games already under its belt from the 2016 spring schedule, the University of Notre Dame men’s soccer team remains hard at work on both the game and practice pitches during offseason training. The Irish will host the first two of four scheduled home matches this spring on the Notre Dame campus on Saturday, welcoming DePaul at 2 p.m. (ET) and Western Michigan at 3:45 p.m. (ET) to old Alumni Field.
“As I always say, we practice through the week and the games are the tests,” Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark said. “Obviously you want to win them and get an A, but the main reason for a test should be to let you know where you are and what you should be working on. The spring is a true teaching time, whereas in the regular season we are a results-driven industry and we have to get results in the fall. The spring is more about pure teaching, and our coaching staff really enjoys that.”
Notre Dame passed its first spring test on March 13 against the MLS side Columbus Crew in Obetz, Ohio. Forward Jon Gallagher found a 75th minute equalizer during a strong Irish effort to help Notre Dame pick up a 1-1 draw in the opening contest on the spring schedule.
“The Crew game is always a great experience because you’re playing against really good players,” Clark said. “It maybe comes a bit too early for us, I’d prefer if that was one of the last games to give us an opportunity to get our sea legs under us. That was literally our first game against anyone on an outdoor grass field this spring, and before that we had been indoors at Loftus on a narrower field. I was happy with the way that we played and we could have scored a couple of goals in the first half. We stayed 0-0 and earned a 1-1 tie, and by the end of the game we were playing very well. That was a positive start.”
The Irish traveled to Pontiac, Michigan on March 19 to take part in two games at the Ultimate Soccer Arena complex, opening the day with a 1-0 win over Michigan State on a goal from forward Jeffrey Farina in the 22nd minute. Notre Dame capped the doubleheader in a 1-1 draw against Oakland, with Gallagher providing the Irish goal in the game’s third minute.
“The two games we played indoors in Pontiac were terrific, we always get a good crowd there,” Clark said. “We played two 70-minute games with mixed teams and split our squad down the middle, with one team playing the first game and another playing the second game. You get to see certain people that have never really played in a Notre Dame uniform before, so that was fun and I was very pleased.”
On the topic of younger players maximizing opportunities in the spring to showcase their talents, Clark had to look no further than one talented Irish midfielder and his success during the 2013 offseason as an example for the next generation.
“They’re showing us what they can do, and so many people always seem to emerge during the spring,” Clark said. “I can remember Evan Panken as a freshman, he hadn’t played at all in the fall (2012) and in a game against Xavier down there he stood out. We played one squad in the first half and one in the second half of a one-off game, and he came on when we were two goals down and we came back and won the game either 4-2 or 5-2. Right away we realized he was ready and he took off. This is really the chance for those who didn’t play in the fall, especially the freshmen and sophomores, to stake a claim.”
After practice began at the start of the second semester on the Notre Dame campus in January, many days of training and team scrimmages awaited before the initial spring game against outside competition. Once it came time for the Irish and Columbus Crew to lock up on the pitch at the Obetz Training Field in March, Clark noted there was the usual spring air of excitement around the team.
“You can only play against yourself for so long, and by the time Spring Break comes along the guys are ready to play against someone else,” Clark said. “It certainly tells you where you’re at because you feel like you’re doing well when you scrimmage against yourself, but you have to see how you compete against other teams. When we play mixed teams in the spring we usually see that our opponent puts out their strongest team against Notre Dame, so it’s a challenge to see how our guys respond.
“I enjoy watching how we compete, and it gives us points where we can grow because you don’t grow without the test,” Clark said. “The test is more to show what we do well and what can we do better, and you look very carefully at what you’re doing well when putting a team together. These games give you a platform to work from to see where you need to improve.”
This weekend allows Notre Dame to play the role of host when DePaul and Western Michigan arrive at old Alumni Field. The two matches bridge the gap at the halfway point of the Irish spring slate, opening the gates for another competitive month of soccer in April.
“This weekend we will have two more 70-minute games where we split the squad a little bit differently,” Clark said. “We always reshuffle the pack, and these will also be good tests. DePaul we used to know well from our BIG EAST days so it’s nice to reconnect with them, and Western Michigan had a very good season last year. Valparaiso will be the fourth team in this mini-tournament, but we won’t actually play them until our preseason scrimmages (in August). All of these teams are potential NCAA tournament teams so it will give us a nice look at them.
“This is a fun time where we’re playing games every weekend, and pretty much everyone is playing at this time,” Clark added. “Next weekend we go to play Indiana in Fort Wayne, which is always a fun experience, and then we’ll have a squad at home against Bethel in the morning on April 16 in a very tough game. Bethel is a very well coached side. We also play Kentucky later that day in the evening game before we finish with the Mexico U20s on April 22. Anyone who knows their soccer knows that Mexico’s Under-17 and Under-20 Olympic teams are always among the best in the world. It comes at the right time at the end of the spring season, we are always game-ready for Mexico.”
Tony Jones, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2012 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame softball and men’s soccer programs. A native of Jamestown, New York, Jones is a 2011 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and prior to arriving at Notre Dame held positions at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and with the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills.