Two weeks ago on a chilly Friday evening, the men’s soccer team huddled up after losing in overtime to No. 9 Louisville. Associate head coach John Murphy joined the team and turned to head coach Ed Kelly.
“Do you wanna talk to these guys?” Murphy said.
Kelly looked at the team, eyes wide, and said, “No.”
Murphy looked back to the players, told them when to arrive for practice the following morning, and as the team put their hands in, said, “Family,” and left.
Everyone wanted to get away from the Newton Campus Soccer Field that evening to escape an omnipresent tension caused by frustration—not between the coaching staff and the players—but a mutual one that arose from dropping three straight matches, and back-to-back games in overtime.
At that point in time, nothing was going right for Boston College. Poor decision-making led to the Cardinals’ game-winner. The team travelled to No. 23 Duke and lost 1-0, off a free kick resulting from a questionable foul call and a shoddy wall.
Heading into blustery, rainy, and cold South Bend, Ill. on Friday night against No. 1 Notre Dame, the Eagles needed a bit of help. Someone else had to make a mistake, not BC. When Henry Balf played a long ball up the pitch for Isaac Normesinu to scamper onto, a Fighting Irish center back failed to read it correctly, and the sophomore kept running. The defender failed to play it back to goalkeeper Patrick Wall, and Normesinu took a one-time shot from 14 yards to put BC up 1-0.
“He’s so fast, so we brought Ike [Normesinu] in to run in behind, and we haven’t done enough running in behind,” Kelly said.
BC would be able to hang on and win, but at the time, the Eagles still had a problem: there were still 75 minutes of soccer left to play, and BC would have to be mistake-free for the entire hour and 15 minutes.
“We can’t make mistakes,” said Kelly, whose team has been marred by error in recent weeks.
For the most part, the Eagles were disciplined, and even and if there was an error, it was not costly. Notre Dame had chances—19 of them, in fact—while the Eagles had just three, including Normesinu’s goal. All of BC’s shots came in the first half, which is when the Eagles set the tone by cutting off the Fighting Irish’s supply chain.
“Zeiko did a great part on their No. 8, in the early parts of the game.” Kelly said. “He’s their kind of playmaker.”
Notre Dame’s No. 8 is Nick Besler, the brother of the United States men’s national team’s Matt. When opponents think about Notre Dame’s team, you think about four players—Leon Brown, the drop forward, Vince Cicciarelli, the target man, Patrick Hodan, the tricky winger, and Besler. By taking Besler out the game, the senior was kept from feeding Brown and Hodan, so the ball rarely got to Cicciarelli in areas the hosts could exploit. The younger Besler is an intelligent center midfielder built straight out of the mold of his older brother, who also played at Notre Dame.
Kelly has also turned away from the diamond midfield that he used through the team’s 2-0 loss to Clemson.
“We were getting a little stretched out, because Henry is a freshman, who ended up being a holding guy, and then we’ve got to get the full back thing sorted out,” said Kelly. “It’s too much for Henry as a freshman to stick with the diamond.”
A change of tactics means the Eagles have gone back to the 4-4-1-1 of yesteryear. Frano now partners Balf in a sturdy midfield. The full back problem existed because Matt Wendelken is the only natural right back in the squad, and he just returned to the lineup for the clash with Notre Dame. BC was getting ripped apart on the wings, as four different players, including Frano, were filling in the role with varying success.
“We have, like, an entirely new defense out there this year, so it takes a little bit of time to make it gel to play against these teams,” Kelly said.
Freshmen litter the lineup as well. Balf has established himself as a starter, which has been “a huge plus,” according to Kelly. Mohammed Moro is the first choice left back, Len Zeugner is a top center back, and Idrissa Bangura is a versatile substitute. `
Balf has been the standout. The center midfielder is not a typical ACC soccer player, because he is not big, strong, and athletic, but instead deceivingly quiet and smart. His game is based around finding creative players with short passes, and sending the occasional long ball over the top. He is not afraid to break up play and tackle an opponent either, and that is the most underrated part of his game. Against the Fighting Irish, Balf got stuck-in on multiple occasions, and his tackles not only took the opponent out of possession, but also kick-started BC’s attack.
With protection from Frano and Balf, the back four excelled on Friday night. They received cover in the second half when the team slipped into two banks of four, as nine players were behind the ball at all times with Nick Butler isolated up top as a target for clearances. Even though those two lines bent, they did not break.
Notre Dame had chances, which extended from a botched header from six yards out after the break to a Max Lachowecki pot shot that trickled past Alex Kapp only to sputter off the far post 16 minutes from time.
The Fighting Irish tried to work the ball deeper into the box to pin BC’s center backs against Kapp, but the Eagles would not relent. Ampadu and Zeugner cleared their lines with help from a retreating midfield, and they ultimately made no mistakes.
With a confidence from beating the nation’s top dog in hand and the tension gone, one of the ACC’s most talented squads knows that it can play with the swagger it is capable of, yet have the discipline to limit errors. But can the win spur the Eagles on to a successful season?
“It has to,” Kelly said.
Featured Image by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff