Apr 25, 2013, 1:18 AM EDT
Though Notre Dame has played a challenging spring schedule stocked with formidable opponents such as Indiana, Michigan, and the Toronto FC reserves, one game looms above the rest in terms of importance and difficulty: Mexico. The Irish have spent this week gearing up for Mexico’s U20 national team, always a monumental task. Notre Dame will enter the game with much confidence, however, after their 5-2 dismantling of Xavier this past Saturday.
The Irish traveled to Cincinnati to face off against the Musketeers in a charity game benefitting children with Down syndrome. The squad got off to a rough start and faced a 2-0 deficit less than 25 minutes into the contest. But with less than 5 minutes remaining in the first half, Notre Dame began to whittle away at their host’s lead as junior midfielder Kyle Craft volleyed a cross from sophomore Max Lachowecki into the back of the net. Head coach Bobby Clark called the goal one of the best he’s seen all year.
Clark likes to split his players into two teams for spring games and have each team play one half. On Saturday, the second half unit had great success on the offensive end, pouring in four goals to make a close game a blowout. Freshman Evan Panken notched two goals and both Alex Priede and Leon Brown tallied one. Clark contended that the team’s defensive effort also improved mightily in the second half.
“We looked vulnerable on defense in the first half,” Clark said. “I thought they pressured very hard, and we handled transition much better in the second period. Our two center backs, Andrew O’Malley and Connor Miller, did a much better job in the second period than they did in the first.”
The skipper was pleased, but warned outsiders not to get overly excited and optimistic about his club’s performance.
“It was a good performance in many ways,” Clark said. “They’ve been a tournament team for the last three years. Don’t read too much into it though. It was an exercise more than a win.”
As well as the Irish played in the second half against the Musketeers, they might need to play even better this Friday if they hope to knock off Mexico. Clark had no shortage of praise for the powerhouse that will enter Alumni Stadium tomorrow.
“This will be technically the best team we’ll play all year,” Clark said. “It’s a very good Mexican team, a team that could very well potentially win the under 20 World Cup in Turkey this summer. Every player on their squad is a professional. You’re playing against guys to whom soccer is their livelihood. Some of them will be playing for the full national team in the World Cup in two years I would imagine. The Mexicans are a tremendously proud nation and soccer means just so much to them.”
Notre Dame has struggled with handling other team’s pressure this spring, especially that of elite teams like Indiana, the defending national champions. The boss is very interested to see how his troops fare against the Mexicans in this regard.
“That’s the task,” Clark said. “Can we actually pressure a team like that, and can we dictate when we don’t have a ball against a team of Mexico’s quality? And then when we’ve got the ball, can we handle it? Because they will pressure us very hard. All the good teams that we’ll play this year – Maryland, North Carolina, Indiana – they’re going to pressure and we’re going to have to handle that. But I think we have players that can do that. There are different ways of handling it; you can dribble past it, pass past it, or you can knock it past pressure. So it’s picking the right solution to the problem that you’re faced with will be the key both individually with certain players and collectively as a team.”
In every other spring tilt, Clark has made a very conscious effort to provide every single player ample game experience. Because of the skill level of Friday’s opponent, he will not necessarily employ the same approach.
“I think we’ll give this game more to the experienced players,” Clark said. “Hopefully Mexico will come back next year and then the younger guys will have a shot at it then. And we have the Alumni game the next day, so anyone that doesn’t play too much against Mexico can play a lot on Saturday. We’re not in as big of a hurry this game to throw players in there as we have been in other games. This is a pretty special game for us.”
The men will kick off in what promises to be a crowded and rowdy Alumni Stadium at 7:30 tomorrow night.
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