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Clemson Tops Notre Dame To Win The Men’s 2023 National Championship.

After both sides won their quarterfinal matches by identical 1-0 scorelines, Clemson and Notre Dame met on a brisk Monday night in the first all-ACC College Cup Final since 2013.  Notre Dame Hoped To Secure Their Second National Championship Since Winning Their First In 2013 over then-ACC opposition Maryland, while Clemson hoped to secure their fourth overall national championship and second in the past three years.  Let’s dive into how each team got here, and how the match played out. By Brian Ludden

Clemson’s Road To The Final

After losing to this same Notre Dame team back in September to open up their conference slate, Clemson had lost just once since then.  Regular season wins over Duke and Louisville in addition to ACC Tournament wins over Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina highlighted Clemson’s pre-NCAA Tournament schedule.  The Tigers kept six shutouts throughout the regular season and conference tournament, and entered the College Cup Final on the back of a four-match shutout streak.  In the NCAA Tournament, Clemson started out with a 3-0 victory over Charlotte, followed by a 1-0 win on the road at New Hampshire.  A 2-0 win in the quarterfinals over Stanford sent Clemson to the College Cup semifinals, where they met West Virginia.  A first half goal from Shawn Smart was all Clemson needed in that one, as a 1-0 triumph put Clemson into the College Cup Final.

Notre Dame’s Road To The Final

After missing out on the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame entered the season looking to right the ship and get back to where they believed they belong.  The Fighting Irish were undoubtedly one of the best teams in the nation throughout the regular season, highlighted by wins over Clemson, Virginia, Duke, and Pittsburgh (by a combined score of 13-3).  Despite a 4-3 loss in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals vs. Louisville which resulted in Notre Dame missing out on the #1 overall seed, the Fighting Irish rebounded in the NCAA Tournament.  A second round win over Kentucky preceded two penalty shootout victories over Western Michigan and Indiana.  After that quarterfinal win over Indiana which prompted a field storming from fans and students, Notre Dame met College Cup debutants Oregon State in the semifinals.  Eno Nto scored the lone goal just after halftime, which proved to be the difference as Notre Dame advanced to the College Cup Final for the second time in program history.

The Match

Notre Dame’s Daniel Russo had the first big chance of the game, but his shot in the 7th minute was saved by Clemson goalkeeper Joseph Andema.  Russo had another decent chance just seconds later off the ensuing corner kick, but his unmarked header flew over the crossbar.  But for the next 20 minutes or so, it was Clemson who took control of the match.  The Tigers maintained possession but were initially unable to create many dangerous chances throughout the opening half hour.  But the continued possession finally paid off for Clemson after a corner kick.  After the initial delivery was partially cleared away, the ball fell to Brandon Parrish outside the box.  Parrish took the ball down on his chest, and fired a swerving shot past Notre Dame’s ACC Goalkeeper of the Year, Bryan Dowd.  The 27th-minute goal gave Clemson a 1-0 advantage, but despite being on the back foot for the previous 20 minutes, the Fighting Irish had a positive response to going down.  “We played with a little bit more urgency after their goal,” head coach Chad Riley explained after the match.  “I’d say we responded well.”  Matthew Roou had a shot on goal just minutes after the goal, forcing Andema into a save.  Daniel Russo had a chance for a header in the 31st minute, but he missed the target.  One of the main talking points in the first half besides the Clemson goal came in the 38th minute, as KK Baffour went down in the box. However, nothing was given and play was waved on.  Another “near chance” for Notre Dame came in the 42nd minute, but Andema was alert to come off his line and deal with a through ball.  Despite the half-chances for Notre Dame at the end of the first half, it was Clemson who went into the locker room with the lead.

Notre Dame maintained the pressure in the early stages of the second half, with some of their best chances coming shortly after the break.  In the 49th minute, a quickly-taken free kick from just outside the box caught most of the Clemson defense off-guard, but an alert Andema prevented a Notre Dame equalizer.  A few minutes later, after a good through ball allowed Nolan Spicer to get in behind the Clemson back line, a few passes within the box gave Paddy Burns a shooting chance inside the box.  Burns was unable to completely adjust his body to shoot, and had to watch his shot come rattling back off the crossbar, later acknowledging that it was a chance he should’ve finished.  Just two minutes later, a Notre Dame corner kick caused some confusion in the box, as Andema was hesitant about coming off his line.  The ball bounced off of Matthew Roou and was bound for the back of the net, but the goalscorer Parrish was at the right place at the right time, and cleared the ball off the line.

However, the constant pressure and pushing numbers forward left Notre Dame susceptible to counter attack opportunities from Clemson.  The Tigers were not very clinical on their first few scoring chances in the second half, most of which came from counter attacks.  But in the 70th minute, the ACC champions punished Notre Dame on the counter.  Ousmane Sylla carried the ball forward following a headed clearance in Clemson’s 18-yard box, and eventually found Alex Meinhard on the far side.  The Tulsa transfer patiently waited for the play to develop, before dragging a cross back for Sylla.  Clemson’s leading scorer, waiting unmarked at the penalty spot, calmly placed his shot out of the reach of Dowd and into the back of the net, doubling Clemson’s advantage. 

Despite falling into a 2-0 hole, Notre Dame didn’t slow down.  They were nearly gifted a lifeline in the 78th minute, but Andema saved what would have been a disastrous Clemson own goal.  The theme of “near misses” unfortunately continued for Notre Dame in the late stages of the match, including a shot from KK Baffour in the 83rd minute that narrowly missed the post.  Desperation started to set in for Notre Dame as the match inched towards the 90 minute mark, with Daniel Russo firing a wild shot with just a few minutes to play.  With time ticking down on any hopes of a miraculous comeback, a free kick in the 89th minute finally gave Notre Dame another brilliant scoring opportunity.  A ball played out wide to Bryce Boneau allowed him to fire a cross into the box, where it struck the hand of Clemson’s Tyler Trimmal.  The Fighting Irish were given a penalty, which was converted by Paddy Burns, giving Notre Dame a slimmer of hope and setting up a tense final minute.  Clemson won a corner and was able to almost bleed out the rest of the clock, but Notre Dame was given one final hail mary chance with seven seconds to go.  Dowd launched a free kick into the box, and although Burns was able to flick a header towards goal, the ball floated harmlessly wide.  The horn sounded, sending Clemson players and fans into wild celebrations.

With the victory, Clemson secured their fourth ever National Championship, and head coach Mike Noonan became just the third coach in Clemson sports history to win two national titles (joining Dabo Swinney and legendary Clemson soccer coach I. M. Ibrahim).  Finally just to toot my own horn for a quick moment, I nailed this prediction.  I predicted Clemson to win the National Championship back in my predictions article, and I got it spot on.

And with that, the 2023 college soccer season has come to an end.   We’ve spent the past four months watching games, reading about the matches, and following our favorite teams.  We now await the spring season where teams will play a few exhibitions, and in August of 2024, the full fall college soccer season.  New faces will emerge, and new teams will make their mark.  Plenty of conference realignment will make college soccer a new landscape, and we already can’t wait for it to come back.

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Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News.

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