College Soccer: Notre Dame's road to College Cup has been filled with familiarity

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
Bryan Dowd celebrates Notre Dame's win over Pitt to advance to the College Cup. (COURTESY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS)

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame men's soccer coach Chad Riley still had no idea who his fourth-seeded Irish would face in this weekend's College Cup when his team was celebrating last Saturday's national quarterfinal win over No. 5 Pitt.

He knew it would be either Oregon State or Clemson. The game wasn't scheduled to start until later that night. But secretly, Riley was hoping for the No. 1-seeded Beavers to advance. 

"It is funny, you always want to play someone different in the NCAA Tournament," he said after his team's Tuesday night practice at the Irish Indoor Athletic Center. "At the same time, having that familiarity — not to say it will do anything to make you win the game — does give you a little less preparation you have to do." 

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The Fourth-year head coach didn't get his wish.

And instead, the Irish will play their third consecutive ACC opponent when they play the No. 8 Tigers on Friday (6 p.m. EST/ESPNU) for a trip to Sunday's national championship game on the line. 

The other side of the bracket features No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Georgetown.

"It is just a testament to how good the ACC conference is, senior forward/midfielder Dawson McCartney said. "We were joking that it is kind of like we are playing our own little ACC Tournament right now with three ACC teams in a row."

On its road to this year's College Cup, Notre Dame's second appearance all-time (2013), the Irish have had to dispatch two other ACC sides, Wake Forest two weeks ago in the Sweet 16 and the Panthers last week in penalty kicks (4-2), after a 1-1 finish in regulation. 

The rematches have made for interesting postseason chess matches, as both sides have substantial knowledge about the other side — as is the case in this Friday's national semifinal. 

Philip Quinton kicks the ball during a Notre Dame Soccer game earlier this season. No.4-seeded Notre Dame will play No. 8 Clemson in the College Cup semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday in Cary, N.C. (COURTESY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS)

The Irish (14-5-2, 4-2-2 ACC), already played the Tigers on Oct. 9 and beat them 2-0 in South Carolina. The win was part of a four-game streak in which Notre Dame kept clean sheets.

"They were a great side, definitely in the first half where they carried some of the play and had some key opportunities," McCartney said. "I think we know their style of play and need to come out following the game plan and hopefully we come out with the win." 

To get to this point, Notre Dame had to complete a comeback for the first time during its tournament run, falling 1-0 down to the Panthers in the first half. Paddy Fisher provided the equalizer for the Irish to tie the game at one, and  Bryan Dowd made two saves in penalty kicks to help his team advance. 

Fighting through that adversity gave the Irish confidence they can battle their way through any scenario. 

There is also the added confidence of heading back down to Cary, North Carolina, where Notre Dame lifted the ACC Tournament trophy just last month.

"It all comes down to we have played the top teams in the nation already," senior midfielder Ben Giacobello said. "That is what the ACC conference prepares you for. It’s a conference that has a lot of really good teams and a lot of really good players, so when you play those teams over and over again, you are really not scared of any team."

Heading into Friday's game, the Irish aren't looking past the Tigers in any way, but the coaching staff does have its knowledge of both potential championship opponents — if Notre Dame were able to make it there. 

The Notre Dame men's soccer team celebrates its win against Pitt Saturday night at Alumni Stadium

Jeff Rowland, an assistant on Riley's staff, spent 10 years on Washington's coaching staff. Riley also said the team has watched Georgetown while preparing for other games this postseason, and feel like they know them a little bit, if they were to be the Irish's championship opponent. 

But first, Notre Dame must conquer its final ACC test. 

"The university demands excellence," Giacobello said. "I would like to provide that since everyone else in athletics is doing that as well."

Men's NCAA soccer tournament

Who: No. 8 Clemson vs No. 4 Notre Dame

What: 2021 NCAA Soccer Tournament Final Four

Where: Cary, North Carolina

When: Dec. 10 at 6 p.m.

TV: ESPNU

What's at stake: Trip to the 2021 National Championship game