Notre Dame men’s soccer: ACC soccer better than the Big East

KYLE KNUST
KKnust@SBTinfo.com

Notre Dame men’s soccer coach Bobby Clark admits that there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as he prepares for his first season in what has become arguably the best men’s soccer conference in the country.

“Playing in the Big East, you knew the teams, the coaches and what they were trying to do,” Clark said. “This year, well, that’s obviously going to be different in the ACC. I don’t know all those things as well any more. But that’s one of the most exciting things about this season.’’

Exciting, and perhaps ulcer-inducing when one takes a glance at the league’s recent history.

Six teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference made the NCAA Tournament last year. Maryland, a league member for one more season before it departs for the Big Ten, was a national semifinalist. Five teams, including incoming Notre Dame and Syracuse, were ranked in the top 25 in the final poll of the season.

Since 2005, four ACC teams have claimed five national championships: North Carolina in 2011, Virginia in 2009, Maryland in 2008 and 2005 and Wake Forest in 2007.

“I think over the last several years the ACC has been the top league,” Clark said. “Virginia had a string of wins. North Carolina, Duke and Maryland have been regular Final Four teams. The ACC really brings a tremendous schedule.”

Clark, who has led Notre Dame to a 153-68-35 mark in 13 seasons, isn’t letting the pedigree of his new conference home make him anxious. His 2012 Irish squad went 17-4-1, had the top RPI in the country and earned the tournament’s top seed before losing to eventual champion Indiana in the Sweet 16.

“We definitely know that we shouldn’t fear anyone,” Clark said. “Last year three of the top four seeds in the tournament were from the Big East. The Big East has been a great soccer conference as well. So, hopefully, playing in the Big East has prepared us.”

Maryland went 20-1-3 overall last season and won the league before falling in the national semifinals to Georgetown. North Carolina finished second, went 16-4-3 overall and advanced to the regional finals in the tournament.

The Terps appear primed to repeat as conference champs. They’re led by senior Patrick Mullins, a 6-1 forward with accolades in excess last season: MVP of the ACC championship, ACC Offensive Player of the Year, first-team All-American and a finalist for the Hermann Trophy.

Mullins led the league in goals (17), shots (95) and tied for the lead in assists (10).

Clark pointed to an enhanced overall talent level in the ACC as one of the main differences between the two conferences. Players like Mullins certainly fit the bill.

“(The ACC) has a lot of good players,” he said. “A lot of the top young soccer players want to go and play in the ACC. It’s a league that traditionally put players into the pros and traditionally produced players for our national team. We know that we are going to be going up against some very talented teams.”

A glance at last season’s recruiting rankings bears this out, as well. According to TopDrawerSoccer.com, seven ACC schools pulled in top-25 recruiting classes: Maryland (2), Virginia (4), North Carolina (7), Wake Forest (8), Notre Dame (13), North Carolina State (16) and Duke (20).

“From a recruiting standpoint, we’re not really going to change much,” Clark said. “We were already competing with those schools for players. We know the players that we’re going to be facing.”

What will be new, and Clark admitted welcome, for Notre Dame, are some of the more temperate road destinations.

“That’s kind of another thing that’s exciting,” Clark said. “Going to play different teams in different places. It will be much nicer going to places like North Carolina in November than some of our destinations in the Northeast. I won’t say that I’m sad about that.”

Clark has gone 35-22-2 against ACC competition while at Notre Dame. However 19 of those wins were against fellow league newcomers and former Big East confederates Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Notre Dame kicks off ACC play on Sept. 8 with a home game against North Carolina, whom the Irish have never faced, and Notre Dame hosts Maryland on Oct. 8.

Duke, Virginia and Pittsburgh will also make trips to South Bend.

“From a fan’s perspective, it’s fantastic,” Clark said. “We’re going to see some tremendous soccer.”

ACC MEN’S SOCCER

2013 final standings

Maryland (20-1-3 overall, 6-1-1 ACC); North Carolina (16-4-3, 6-1-1); Wake Forest (11-4-5, 4-1-3); Clemson (6-9-5, 3-2-3); Boston College (8-6-5, 3-2-3); Virginia (10-7-4, 3-4-1); Duke (8-8-2, 3-4-1); NC State (10-10-0, 1-7-0); Virginia Tech (7-10-3, 0-7-1).

Ranked in poll

Maryland (3), North Carolina (5), Notre Dame (8), Syracuse (17), Wake Forest (22).

Top returning players

Patrick Mullins, F, Maryland; Sean Okoli, F, Wake Forest; Andy Craven, F, North Carolina, Kyle Renfro, GK, Virginia Tech.

Longest-tenured coaches

Ed Kelly (Boston College, 23 years, 238-182-49); Jay Vidovich (Wake Forest, 18, 252-108-43); Sasho Cirovski (Maryland, 17, 304-116-29); George Gelnovatch (Virginia, 17, 247-100-33), Bobby Clark (Notre Dame, 12, 153-68-35).

Top ND home games

North Carolina, Maryland

Grant Van De Castelle and Notre Dame lost to evetual champion Indiana in the Sweet 16 last season. As they venture into the ACC, the Irish could have a more challenging time reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Notre Dame’s Bob Novak and Indiana’s Matt McKain battle for control during last season’s NCAA Sweet 16 contest at Alumni Stadium.