With the year the Notre Dame men’s soccer program has enjoyed there certainly was no need to be anxious when mingling with lions, climbing the Great Zimbabwe Ruins or visiting the world’s largest waterfall (Victoria Falls) on the team’s recent trip to Africa. If the Fighting Irish are involved odds are things will turn out just fine.
From winning the national championship, capturing a share of the ACC title, succeeding in the classroom and seeing its alums shine in the MLS and on the United States National Team, it’s been a watershed year for Notre Dame men’s soccer.
“The program has been pushing very hard for a number of years and we’ve been knocking on the door,” Fighting Irish head coach Bobby Clark said. “We’ve had success and we’ve won BIG EAST tournaments and won BIG EAST (regular season) leagues, but this year it just absolutely blossomed and came together. It’s almost scary how many things have happened and with the alumni playing well.”
Notre Dame has been a consistent force in college soccer since Clark arrived in 2001. In his 13 seasons patrolling the Fighting Irish sidelines, the team has appeared in 12 NCAA tournaments, won six conference titles and have sent 27 players into the MLS. But the program has taken its success to unprecedented heights over the last 12 months.
In the fall, Notre Dame produced a 17-1-6 record while playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country thanks in part to its inaugural ACC slate. The Fighting Irish opened the season with a 13-game unbeaten streak, which catapulted them to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time in program history. After suffering their only loss of the season, the Irish finished the campaign with a 10-game unbeaten streak (9-0-1) and outscored opponents 25-8 during that stretch en route to their first national title.
Helping lead the charge was first-team All-American and ACC Offensive Player of the Year Harrison Shipp, who paced the Irish with 12 goals and 10 assists. Following that splendid performance, it would have been understandable if Shipp needed to take some time off from the pitch. After all, he played in every match during his college career and compiled 23 goals and 24 assists en route to numerous national and conference honors. However, the former Fighting Irish captain has carried his success into the professional ranks ever since signing with the Chicago Fire in January.
Shipp, a native of Lake Forest, Ill., has played in 14 matches, including 13 starts, with the Fire and leads the team in goals (6) and assists (4). He is making a strong claim to become the second straight MLS rookie of the year who used to don the Fighting Irish kit.
Dillon Powers was named the MLS AT&T Rookie of the Year in November after posting five goals and six assists in his first campaign with the Colorado Rapids. This season, the midfielder has started 12 of the 14 matches he’s appeared in and has tallied three goals and a team-high four assists for the Rapids, who currently are in second place in the Western Conference.
Joining Powers in Colorado this season is his former Fighting Irish teammate and fellow Plano, Texas native Grant Van De Casteele, who was an anchor in the Notre Dame backline over the last four seasons. Van De Casteele also wore the captain’s armband this past season for the Irish and helped the defense post 10 shutouts and earned third-team All-America honors before Colorado selected him in the first round of January’s MLS SuperDraft.
Shipp, Powers and Van De Casteele are among nine former Fighting Irish players currently competing in the MLS. The others are: Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Jeb Brovsky (Montreal Impact), Bright Dike (Toronto FC), Ryan Finley (Chivas USA), Aaron Maund (Real Salt Lake) and Justin Morrow (Toronto FC).
While the Fighting Irish produced their finest season on the pitch in 2013, it’s safe to say Besler registered the top year ever for an alumnus of the program. A week before his alma mater captured the national title Besler captained Sporting KC to the 2013 MLS Cup. In addition, the 2009 Notre Dame graduate earned his second MLS All-Star nod and was named to the 2013 MLS Best XI squad.
Besler’s MLS accomplishments have elevated his status in the soccer world, but his recent run with the U.S. National Team has taken him to a whole other level. The central defender became the first former Notre Dame player selected to a World Cup Final roster and he started all four matches in Brazil, helping the U.S. reach the round of 16 before falling to Belgium, 2-1, on Tuesday.
Last summer, Besler and the U.S. won the CONCACAF Gold Cup title and he was an integral part of the squad that stormed through World Cup qualifying before ultimately claiming a spot in the 32-team tournament. Besler has earned 21 caps with the U.S. National Team since being called up in January of 2013 and the team is 13-3-4 with him in the starting lineup. It certainly was fitting that during the most successful year in the history of Notre Dame men’s soccer, the Fighting Irish were represented in the largest sporting event in the world.Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
“He’s such a wonderful representative of what Notre Dame is about,” Clark said of Besler, whose brother Nick is a senior captain on the Notre Dame squad. “He checks all the boxes that we would like checked. He represents us very well on all levels. When he was here he was a terrific student and a terrific player. He was a very good captain and he was very humble.”
During his senior season Besler earned the distinction of being a first team All-American, a first team Academic All-American and the 2008 National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Having a player with that well-rounded skillset is a rare commodity, yet the program was able to boast another such student-athlete in 2013 when Shipp matched those outstanding feats.
Not only did Shipp help lead the Fighting Irish on the field, he was at the forefront of a stellar performance in the classroom. Even while navigating its way to the national title, seven Fighting Irish players earned their way on to the dean’s list for the fall semester and a total of 22 student-athletes had a grade-point average of 3.0 or above. That figure includes sophomore midfielder Patrick Hodan, who copped Academic All-America honors and was the team’s second-leading scorer with 27 points on 11 goals and five assists. Shipp and Hodan became the first pair of Irish teammates to be named Academic All-Americans in the same season.
“One of the nice things about our success is that everyone is graduating,” Clark, the 2013 NSCAA National Coach of the Year, said. “We’re doing well in the classroom and I think the year finished perfectly with the trip to Africa. We’ve done foreign trips before which all have been a lot of fun and really good trips, but this is the first time we did one with a service component. This was a nice way to cap the school year.”
The Fighting Irish program offers its student-athletes unique opportunities and gives them the support and direction to be successful on the field, in the classroom and in their future endeavors. There has been no clearer indication of that than what the current and former players have been able to achieve over the last year.
But, a new season presents new challenges.
“Now the trick is to repeat,” Clark said. “We’ve put ourselves in a strong position. Dillon Powers was the (MLS) rookie of the year last year and now can Harry Shipp be the rookie of the year this year? It’s great that Matt Besler is the first Notre Dame player we’ve had at a World Cup. The thing is to create the tradition and we’re on the road to do that and that’s very exciting. It’s a great challenge for the program, the players and the staff. We’re enjoying ourselves by trying to build the tradition and keep the program moving forward.”