April 21, 2016
by Tony Jones
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – A staple of the University of Notre Dame men’s soccer spring schedule virtually every season since 2005, an annual showdown with one of the youth national teams from Mexico has often served as the conclusion to offseason competition.
After playing seven games over the past month against a variety of college and university opponents, the Irish put the finishing touches on the 2016 spring when Notre Dame and the Mexico Under-20 National Team square off at 7:30 p.m. (ET) on Friday at Alumni Stadium, with live coverage on ESPN3.
“This is the most exciting game for the players because we know that Mexico’s youth teams are among the best in the world,” Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark said. “You’re getting a game against not only one of the best teams in the world but a national team, and the U.S.-Mexico game itself is a wonderful rivalry that has been created. For many years Mexico was always the better soccer nation, but in the last 15 years the U.S. standard has risen greatly and it has become a fantastic rivalry. Our guys really respond to this game. I hope our students and the local public come out, as I have noticed in recent years that we have had a nice split in the crowd to make it feel like a U.S.-Mexico game.
“Everybody who follows soccer in Northern Indiana marks this game on their calendars because it’s always a really good game and an advert for soccer, and for our team it lets us see where we are,” Clark added. “I don’t think we’ll play a better technical team on our schedule next season, so this is a team that is very high quality and lets you see where you are at that high level. This will be fun.”
Notre Dame compiled a 3-2-3 mark in its first eight exhibition contests this spring, routinely playing in front of large crowds in places like Fort Wayne against historic national power Indiana and at Grand Park in Indianapolis against Kentucky last weekend. The big-game atmosphere, Clark said, is something that drives the team competitively during the spring schedule each year.
“One of the things I like to do is take the team on the road in the spring, like last weekend playing Kentucky at Grand Park in front of a great crowd of 3,800 people,” Clark said. “Players respond to an atmosphere, and it was a great but neutral atmosphere in that game. When we have played Mexico in the past it is a slightly more hostile environment because their fans want the team to win, where as in front of these bigger crowds this spring it has been more neutral. Kentucky-Notre Dame is a good game, Indiana-Notre Dame is a good game, fans want to watch and cheer from a little more of a neutral standpoint. There’s no question in Friday’s game that you’re either cheering Mexico or the team from the U.S., there’s no neutral fans. Even though there have been big crowds at the other games, that’s what differentiates this match from the others.”
Notre Dame has regularly enjoyed success in the Mexico series since 2005, notching a 7-2-1 record in that span facing a mixture of Under-17 and Under-20 squads representing Mexico. Not only has the annual contest seen its share of talented international players on Notre Dame soil, a number of future Irish MLS draftees also cut their teeth as part of the Mexico series.
“I have a great photo in my office that has Chicharito (Javier Hernandez) leaping to head the ball over our Michael Thomas (2010 MLS SuperDraft pick), who now plays for the Oklahoma City Energy,” Clark said. “Also in that photo is Justin Morrow (2010 MLS SuperDraft pick), who starts every week for Toronto In the MLS, and Justin actually played for the U.S. against Mexico three or four years ago. There have been some terrific players in this game, with Chicharito possibly the most famous Mexican that is playing just now.
“I remember when Sir Alex Ferguson was still the manager of Manchester United a few years ago and asked me to come down to Chicago where they were playing Bayern Munich, I took a copy of the photo,” Clark said. “Chicharito wasn’t there at that time, I believe he was playing in the South American Championships and was not with the team in the preseason, so I told Alex to give the photo to Chicharito. He looked at it and I said to him, ‘Ask him if he remembers the score (2007), and if he can’t remember the score it was 1-0 Notre Dame.’ I never did ask if he ever gave it to him but I did leave a copy of the photo.”
Chicharito, Thomas and Morrow are examples of numerous professional players from both teams that have seen the pitch when Notre Dame and Mexico have met in prior matchups. Following that same trend, there will be an abundance of current and future professional talent on display Friday night at Alumni Stadium.
“Every player that will play against us on Friday night will be a professional,” Clark said. “They are all with professional clubs, so you are playing a young professional team. It will be a very good test as it always is, and it has been a great friendship that has grown over the years. Mexico keeps coming back because it is good games for them, and between Indiana (Mexico’s Sunday opponent in Bloomington) and us, it is a fun experience for our players. Mexico realizes that one of their chief rivals in CONCACAF are the U.S., and it gives their players great experience playing against American opponents. Some of the players on the Mexico team our freshman Tommy McCabe might have faced when he was with the U.S. U-17s, so Tommy may remember some of them.”
General admission tickets for Friday’s match are available for $8 for adults and $5 for youth and seniors. Contact the Murnane Family Ticket Office at 574-631-7356 or visit UND.com/buytickets for more information.
“Outside of going to Chicago to see an MLS game, if you want to see a quality and high level soccer game up close, this is as good as it gets in this area,” Clark said. “Technically, tactically, and even for atmosphere, this is a great game for anyone who has not seen a big-time soccer game.”
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.