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Jun 4, 2005

Don't bet against Clarke

For a man who will be without 75 percent of his starting defense from a squad that led the nation in defense in 2004, Bobby Clarke is remarkably calm. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men's soccer team was a stingy bunch last season, allowing a meager .45 goals per game en route to the Big East Regular Season Title, yet will be hard pressed to replicate that in 2005.

Head Coach Bobby Clarke will be forced to rebuild after the depletion of his stellar defense. Starting backs Jack Stewart, Kevin Goldwaite, and Christopher High, as well as goalkeeper Chris Sawyer, have all moved on and the Irish will miss them dearly.

A two-time Big East Goalkeeper of the Year and four-year starter capable of turning the tide of a match by corralling a dangerous cross or corner kick or making a stellar reflex save, Chris Sawyer will be an impossibility to replace. His performances last season caught the eye of MLS' Kansas City Wizards who took him in the SuperDraft.

Sawyer played all but 10 minutes of the 2003 season and allowed his understudies only a handful of appearances in 2004. "I'd be lying if I said we weren't aware of losing these guys, especially Sawyer," said Clarke. "We've got four keepers to compete for the top spot, two incoming freshmen and two boys who have been around but haven't been able to get any games. This will be the toughest spot to fill for us".

Jack Stewart had been the anchor of the Irish defense for the last four years and was duly rewarded when named the 2004 Big East Defensive Player of the Year. His intensity, ability to use both feet, and dominance in the air make him almost as big a loss as Sawyer. "Jack is an exceptional player and was a key member of our team," said Clarke. "He was one of the main reasons we allowed so few goals last year and he will be another difficult boy to replace." After graduation, Stewart became the first player in Notre Dame history to be drafted in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft, going tenth overall to the Chicago Fire.

Kevin Goldwaite will be another tough member to replace. One of the best attacking defenders in the nation, he was a big presence on set pieces and had the ability to thread the needle with his passes out of the backfield. At 6'3", Goldwaite will be missed on corners and set pieces. He was taken by the San Jose Earthquakes with the 17th overall pick in the draft.

Although not drafted into MLS, defender Chris High will be missed in the Irish backfield as well. "Chris was a great leader and had a great work rate and attitude in practice. He really showed the younger boys how to work and play hard," Clark said of his departing undrafted back.

Clarke, though, doesn't seem too fazed by the losses. "That's the beauty and challenge of college soccer," Clarke said optimistically. "You usually don't have the same team for more than two or three years. Beyond that amount of time, you need to reload. Every good program goes through it and needs to restock its players. We'll manage."

Clarke is to be commended for his optimism. A lesser coach would bemoan the loss of such a great bunch of players, but Clarke is keeping a stiff upper lip and will battle on. However it's a safe bet the Irish won't be keeping the ball out of the old onion bag as often as they did last year.

Defense wins championships and with the depletion of their defense, it'll be a tough task for the Irish to repeat as Big East Champs and advance further in The NCAA Tournament. Clarke has a good recruiting class coming in this year, but he's relying on role players to fill in the cracks in defense.

Dale Rellas will be a senior this year, but in soccer terms, he's only a sophomore. Rellas started 21 games his freshman year. "He broke his foot against California in the second game of his sophomore season and last year he broke his other foot in the opening game, so he really hasn't played since he was a freshman, but he was excellent for us this spring."

Clarke said sophomore Ryan Miller is expected to fill the open right back position. "He's got good speed and can play with both feet. He hurt his knee last year against California in the Indiana tournament and his season was over."

"Ben Kraus is another player we're hoping can fill in some of the gaps. He played the first half of last year when we experienced some injuries, so he should be able to step in as well."

After hearing what Clarke has at his disposal on defense for the 2005 season, the team's defensive prospects seem shaky. He'll be relying on a guy who's been out for the last two years with two broken feet, a kid who was out all of last year with a knee injury, and a kid who played half of last year, but only because of injuries to fill the boots of two professionally drafted defenders and another top player as well.

The loss of Sawyer is the most perilous situation for Clarke. He was such a dominant figure for the Irish the last four years, as well as one of the best keepers in the country. He never allowed anyone to step in between the sticks. Clarke will have to choose between two incoming freshmen and a junior and senior who weren't able to depose Sawyer anytime in their careers for the starting job.

On paper, it doesn't look good for the Irish, although with Clarke at the helm, you can never tell. Clarke knows a fare amount about winning with limited resources at his disposal. He played 17 seasons for Aberdeen Football Club in the Scottish First Division. In the 1979-80 season, under the management of a young-at-the-time Alex Ferguson, Clarke played in the Aberdeen side that famously won the league and ended the grip the Old Firm (Glasgow Rangers and Celtic) had held on the Scottish league.

His defense has been annihilated and replaced with an inexperienced oft-injured bunch, but Clarke knows how to win, he learned from the best. Don't look for the Irish to be atop the nation's defensive rankings, but if his defense matures throughout the demanding 2005 season, look for the Irish to make a respectable case for an invite to the Big Dance and pull off the odd upset along the way. Clarke did it against Rangers and Celtic, who would bet against him when it's St. Johns, Uconn, or Boston College?

Mike Stoll covers college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: collegekicks@hotmail.com