Sept. 8, 2015
When he looks at the University of Notre Dame men’s soccer team, senior leader Connor Klekota sees the camaraderie that can forge a champion’s toughness. Sophomore sensation Jon Gallagher sees the work ethic that can take dreams off the blueprints and turn them into reality on the soccer field.
Fighting Irish men’s soccer head coach Bobby Clark is only looking at Notre Dame’s next challenge, which will see how the Irish measure up against Atlantic Coast Conference giant Clemson this Saturday at Alumni Stadium.
On Sunday, Notre Dame stood up to sweltering 90-degree heat and UAB to roll to a 4-0 victory, earning the Mike Berticelli Memorial Tournament championship in the process.
No. 2 Notre Dame (3-0-1) now takes on a stretch of five games that starts with No. 9 Clemson, and includes No. RV Xavier, No. 3 North Carolina, No. RV Michigan State, and No. 5 and defending national champion Virginia.
Gallagher blasted in two goals on Sunday to highlight the offensive explosion. The four Irish goals against UAB surpassed the output of three goals in the three previous games combined.
Defensively, the Irish have yet to surrender a goal in their four matches.
Klekota, who scored Notre Dame’s third goal against UAB, said that the first four matches of the season are designed to allow the Irish to forge their toughness.
“I think one thing that really helps is we never have easy games,” Klekota said. “We’ve had four tough games, and we’ve been able to improve a little bit every game.
“Against UAB, we started clicking offensively. Of course, as we move into what I think is the best conference in America, it is important that we’re clicking on both sides of the ball. To get four goals out of the guys and get 28 shots (against UAB) was nice, but even better, I liked the way we created chances and moved the ball.”
Gallagher loved the way the Irish took major strides this weekend. In last weekend’s opening games, Notre Dame tied Maryland, 0-0, and beat Indiana, 1-0.
“We just have to keep working hard, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last few weeks, and it’s paid off,” Gallagher said. “Last weekend, we only scored one goal. This weekend, we got down to business and scored six goals. We just have to keep working hard and carry the momentum forward.
“Every game is different. This weekend, we found a way to win, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. Every opponent is different, and the best teams have to beat every type of opponent, chippy teams, technical teams … you just have to find a way to win, and that’s what we did this weekend.”
Clark said that the Irish haven’t been completely consistent. He’s pleased that the Irish are unbeaten, and that Irish opponents have yet to celebrate a goal. Defense was a question mark for Notre Dame following the graduation of goalkeeper Patrick Wall and key defenders Luke Mishu and Andrew O’Malley.
Clark likes the way the Irish look heading into the showdown with Clemson.
“I think these four games have prepared us well for Clemson,” Clark said. “I felt of all the teams we played in the ACC last year, I thought Clemson was the best. They knocked us out in the semifinals on penalty kicks. They really put us through the mill. They pressured us hard. We struggled to find the game against them, especially in the second half. This will be a test.”
Notre Dame started to hone a fire and hunger before the season started.
“We were talking about our goals,” Klekota said of preseason Irish training. “One of our goals was to be annoying. Its things like marking people on throw-ins that we take pride in. We don’t want anything to come easy for our opponents. We like that motto, `be annoying if you can.’
“The other thing that I like about this team, we have a little of an edge, a little bit of an attitude about us. We understand that we have to put in 20 minutes of hard work to open each half in order to play the way we want to play. I like the edge we’re bringing to the table each match.”
Notre Dame’s ability to combine its edge with intelligent play and mix it with the talent and toughness the Irish bring to the field has Notre Dame ready for the challenge ahead. Irish senior leadership has helped bring the younger players up to full speed.
“Every day, I’m learning so much from the older guys, like Connor Klekota, Patrick Hodan, Evan Panken, Max Lachowecki, Michael Shipp … all those guys,” Gallagher said. “They have an exceptional work rate. For us younger players, the freshmen and myself, sophomores, we just really look up to them. It’s great to have guys on the team we can look up to.
“I think we’ve got to keep our heads down and keep working and not get too ahead of ourselves. It’s nice to be undefeated so far, but we can’t get too arrogant. We have to keep working hard. I think the thing that we do well is we work to our strengths. We don’t try to overdo things. We don’t try to be fancy. We do what we’re good at, and that’s getting the job done.”
Klekota said that strong bonds among the Irish have enabled the Irish to forge strong bonds that will be critical in the ACC and the postseason.
“One thing I like about this group is we’re really close, on and off the field,” Klekota said. “There’s a lot of team chemistry that we’re growing. We’re all best friends. I’ve won the national championship with a group of guys who I would call my best friends. You can see that again. I’m not going to make any promises, but there are some similarities.”
Clark said that he was taking the weekend results in a measured tone.
“They have to prove it every game,” Clark said of his Irish. “One game doesn’t mean an awful lot. It has to happen every week. (Sunday) was nice. We’ll enjoy it, and move on.”
— Curt Rallo, special correspondent