College Soccer: No. 4 Notre Dame falls to No. 8 Clemson in PKs in College Cup

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There was so much about Notre Dame men's soccer's trip to the College Cup that was familiar. 

The Irish had to beat two consecutive ACC opponents to reach WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, the same site the Irish won the ACC Tournament. Another conference opponent, No. 8 Clemson, was waiting for them in Friday's national semifinals. 

Deep into the matchup against the Tigers, everything still felt like deja vu. 

Notre Dame, the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, had to find an equalizing goal after falling behind 1-0, just like last week against No. 5 Pitt in the Elite Eight.

Just like last week 90 minutes, and 20 minutes of extra time, wasn't enough to decide a winner.

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Notre Dame's Dawson McCartney (28) and Clemson's Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador, right, jump for the ball during the second half of a soccer semifinal of the NCAA College Cup in Cary, N.C., Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

Only this time, the Irish couldn't prevail in penalty kicks, falling to Clemson 1-1 (5-3 in PKs) and seeing their season end one game short of Sunday's national championship game. The Tigers will play No. 2 Washington or No. 3 Georgetown at 2 p.m. 

"It's sad at this moment that it is anything but a celebration," Notre Dame coach Chad Riley said following the game. "I think what a great team, what great results, what a great season, all those things and I know they are such competitors and wanted to compete in one more game. Tonight they left everything had."

In the fourth round of penalty kicks Notre Dame's Philip Quinton saw his attempt saved by Clemson goalkeeper George Marks, and Justin Malou converted on Clemson's ensuing attempt to advance the Tigers to their first title game appearance since 2015, as numerous Irish players fell to the ground and put their head in their hands in disappointment. 

Dec 10, 2021; Cary, NC, USA; Clemson goalkeeper George Marks (1) makes the save during the penalty kicks after overtime to send Clemson to the championship game over Notre Dame in the NCAA College Cup semifinal game at WakeMed Soccer Park. Mandatory Credit: William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

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"Those guys are pretty good penalty takers," Marks said. "They have made all of their PKs during the year in two prior shootouts as well, and all of them had gone both directions. At the end of the day you just got to look the man in the eye, have a little luck go into it and these guys are so good, I knew I just had to save one."

Had Notre Dame advanced, it would have been its first championship appearance since 2013, which seemed so unlikely in August.

Just to get to this point, Notre Dame had to battle through its expectations of being the punching bag to the rest of the ACC. The Irish were picked to finish dead last in their ACC division before the season and struggled defensively during the first weeks of the season in non-conference play. 

The Irish's defense stiffened and began conceding less, if at all. Notre Dame had two long shutout streaks, one lasted 650 minutes during its postseason run.

Notre Dame's Jack Lynn, center, celebrates with teammate Tyler Shea (9) after scoring a goal against Clemson during a soccer semifinal of the NCAA College Cup in Cary, N.C., Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

To get to this point Notre Dame had to beat Villanova, Wake Forest and the Panthers last Saturday at Alumni Stadium. 

There just wasn't enough juice in the tank for one more ACC win.

"I think you think about everything after the game but we felt pretty confident,," Riley said of his penalty kick lineup. "Everybody could go each way on their PKs and you arrive at that decision after a lot of thought and preparation. You sort of go away from feelings in that moment."

For the second consecutive game, the Irish had to battle back from a goal down when Clemson's Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a shot that beat Notre Dame's Bryan Dowd after hitting the crossbar. 

Ten minutes later, the Irish equalized on a Jack Lynn penalty kick. 

When Notre Dame fell 1-0 down to Pitt last week, it was a bit shell-shocked after conceding for the first time during the NCAA Tournament.

But the Irish's swift response on Friday after allowing a goal against Clemson showed they were more prepared for playing the comeback role.

"It’s kind of a credit to our defensive strength the rest of the year," Lynn said. "We had two long shutout streaks. Honestly giving up a goal last week and having to fight back prepared us for this week because we went down and I don’t think we blinked. We just went right at them until we got a goal, and honestly we probably should have gotten a couple of more in regulation, too. Just kind of the way it goes sometimes." 

The Irish head back to South Bend knowing they may have left some meat on the bone in Friday's game.

They doubled Clemson in shots 14-7, had one more shot on goal (4-3) and had three good looks at a game-winner in extra time that were saved by Marks. 

They could also look at it as an accomplishment, that five months ago nobody predicted the Irish to get this close to the national championship game. 

So, even though Notre Dame fell one kick (and one game) short of its ultimate goal, there is a sense of accomplishment.

"I think any time you are competing here in soccer, in a tournament, there (are a bunch of teams) not playing right now," Riley said. "I would sure as heck say it was a successful season."