How a slow start to its season fueled Notre Dame men's soccer Elite Eight run

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame's Mohamed Omar celebrates against Wake Forest.(Matt Cashore/Notre Dame Athletics)

SOUTH BEND — To understand how the Notre Dame men's soccer team reached Saturday's home Elite Eight game against No. 5 Pitt, you have to look back to the first two weeks of the season, when the Irish were hit with a gut-punch.

And then a wake-up call.

During their first game back in August, The Irish gave up a late 2-1 lead to No. 2 Indiana, and fell 3-2 in overtime.

“We kept pat, we had full-faith in this group," senior midfielder Mohamed Omar said. "We knew how successful we could be.”

But two weeks later, it happened again. This time the Irish relinquished a 3-1 lead to Michigan State, and lost 4-3.

"We all felt it," said Notre Dame head coach Chad Riley. "We were like, 'OK we are all good, but if we don’t focus on some of the nitty-gritty details then we are not going to be the team we wanted to be."

Five games into their season the Irish had hit a critical point. Now they're the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Instead of crumbling under a slow start and high expectations, Notre Dame stayed the course, made the necessary changes and now find themselves one win away from next weekend's College Cup.

The Irish host fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Saturday at Alumni Soccer Stadium. Kickoff is 5 p.m.

"Just kept faith and kept believing," Omar said of the turnaround. "... This is an unbelievable group of players. We had full faith in our coaching staff to get us where we want to get to and just buying into everything they preached to us."

The last time Notre Dame conceded a goal was seven games ago on Oct. 29 against North Carolina.

Four games in the ACC Tournament. Four shutout wins.

Two games in the NCAA Tournament. Two shutout wins.

To play at a championship level, the Irish had to embrace championship habit. That meant making more tackles, blocks, headers and the long runs down the pitch to be in position to score.

Notre Dame senior Philip Quinton kicks a ball during a Notre Dame soccer game (COURTESY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS)

All things Riley felt his team didn't do in the first couple weeks of the season.

"The guys are just willing to do the little details that really matter that, maybe, don’t get picked up on a stat sheet," he said.

It took senior leaders like defender Philip Quinton and Omar to reinforce the high expectations the Irish players had for each other.

"I think you see the guys putting in the hard yards for each other," Omar said. "One guy is out of the position, nobody is complaining and everybody is just running, getting into that position for them, covering for them on the field. I think the communication has been fantastic."

Communication will be a key Saturday as Pitt is no stranger to the Irish. Notre Dame has defeated the Panthers twice this season; Once on Oct. 16 (a 1-0 double overtime win) and again during the Irish's run to an ACC Tournament Championship, by a score of 2-0 in the semifinals.

"I don’t think it changes much, to be honest," Quinton said. "We know them regardless of how many times we play them. There is film on both of our teams. I think it makes for an exciting game because both teams are going to be really prepared, and obviously it is going to be a high-quality game."

But this time, the stakes are raised a tad.

"For us it is just about competing," Quinton said. "I think we play in two different styles, so there is a conflict there and it makes for an exciting game, but I think we look forward to having it be cold, wet and whatever it may be and just outworking them because that is what we pride ourselves on."

The Panthers, whose two losses to Notre Dame are the only two they have suffered since Sept. 17, are a team that creates chances through possession and passes into the box, compared to Notre Dame's strategy of playing more vertically down the pitch.

It's a look that forces the Irish to be more meticulous and patient to reduce those scoring chances.

That has helped fuel Notre Dame's turnaround over the last couple of months. Its defense has been more disciplined, the opponent's scoring chances have been less frequent and it has reflected on the scoresheets.

It appears the Irish answered that wake-up call.

"We knew how good of a team we could be when everybody bought into the same message," Omar said. "... We didn’t start the season the way that we wanted to, but there was never any real concern. We had all the faith in one another and all the faith in our coaching staff to get us where we wanted."

Men's NCAA soccer tournament

Who: No. 5 Pitt at No. 4 Notre Dame

What: 2021 NCAA Soccer Tournament Elite Eight

Where: Alumni Soccer Stadium, South Bend

When: Dec. 4 at 5 p.m.

TV: ACCNX

What's at stake: Trip to the 2021 College Cup