One of the great things about big-time European clubs having their pre-seasons here in the United States is the opportunity for some of their players to take in American culture and history, sporting and otherwise. We’ve seen them throw fish in the market in Seattle, throw out the first pitch at places like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, and practice playing baseball or American football with the team in whatever city their camp is in.
One of the few sports in the US that can match the passion and intensity of European club soccer is college football. This past weekend, the two combined to serve up an incredibly entertaining exhibition between two big clubs in the form of Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund playing an exhibition game at the famed and hallowed Notre Dame Stadium.
Big time soccer in college football venues is nothing new, of course. The Rose Bowl is home to the game of the same name as well as the UCLA Bruins. It’s also hosted a number of major international soccer games including the Gold Medal game at the 1984 Summer Olympics, the 1994 World Cup Final, the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, and the 2011 Gold Cup Final. Legion Field in Birmingham which is the home of the UAB Blazers played host to several soccer games during the 1996 Summer Olympics, as did Sanford Stadium, home of the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens, GA (both the men’s and women’s Gold Medal games were played between the hedges.). From 1996 through the end of the 1998 season, the Columbus Crew of MLS played their home games at the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes: Ohio Stadium, known as The Horseshoe due to its shape And of course, Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor has hosted several games in the ICC over the last several years, all of which have drawn over 100,000 fans. But there’s just something that feels a little bit different and a little bit more special at Notre Dame Stadium.
Of course, Notre Dame Stadium is not the same as it used to be. After the 2013 football season, the famed grass was torn up and artificial turf was put down in its place (though sod was laid down for the soccer game). The following year saw the beginning of the $400 million Campus Crossroads project that saw a number of changes take place at the stadium: capacity was reduced from 80,795 to 77,622, a new and permanent video screen was installed on the south end of the stadium (so as not to obstruct the view of the Word of Life mural on the wall of the Hesburgh Library, affectionately known to Golden Domers as Touchdown Jesus), a new bank of suites and private boxes was added on the side of the stadium opposite the press box (which was also updated), the home locker room was updated and renovated, and three academic buildings were added on to the stadium.
While the stadium may have been dragged into the 21st century, there is still a ton of history there. After all, Notre Dame is synonymous with college football history. They’ve got 11 national championships, 7 Heisman Trophy winners, tons of inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame (which used to reside in South Bend), they’re second all time in wins, and they are credited with the invention of the forward pass. Famous big-time matchups inside the stadium include the 1988 Catholics vs. Convicts game against the Miami Hurricanes (a 31-30 Notre Dame victory), the 1992 Snow Bowl game against Penn State (a 17-16 Notre Dame victory), the 1993 Game of the Century against Florida State (a 31-24 Notre Dame victory), and the 2005 Bush Push game against USC (a 34-31 USC victory).
College football, however, is no longer the only game in town at Notre Dame Stadium. As part of the Campus Crossroads project, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick has made an effort to get other types of events onto campus in order to help promote the Notre Dame brand. In October of 2018, the first concert in Notre Dame Stadium history was held as Garth Brooks played to a full house. Later in December he played there again as part of a CBS TV special. In January, the stadium played host to the NHL’s Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins in front of 76,126 people. Four days later the Irish men’s hockey team played host to the Michigan Wolverines and fell 4-2 in front of 23,422 people. The stadium then sat quiet and empty for the summer until Liverpool and Dortmund rolled into town to put on a show.
While many fans are excited about new sporting events being brought into Notre Dame Stadium, not everybody is super fired up about it.
“These types of events are kind of cool for a little while, but at the end of the day if you’re in charge at Notre Dame your main goal should be to win football games” says John Kennedy, host of the Always Irish Podcast on YouTube and a lifelong Irish fan. “First it was Garth Brooks concerts, then it was the hockey with the Blackhawks and Bruins and Notre Dame vs Michigan and now it’s a soccer game. I do think that of all the extra events, this game was the coolest one especially the sound when they sang that song.” (referring to You’ll Never Walk Alone)
Kennedy does admit that Notre Dame’s recent on field success in football (a 10-3 campaign in 2017 and a 2018 season that saw the Irish go 12-1 and earn a berth in the annual College Football Playoff) allows him to enjoy these types of events much more than if the football team was losing. He also relished the opportunity for Notre Dame to one-up a big-time rival in Michigan.
“I hate Michigan. And that goes back a long way. So for this type of event to be at Notre Dame Stadium when it’s been at Michigan in the past just warms my soul. And I think we did a better job at hosting than Michigan did. The things that the Liverpool coach said about the facilities at Notre Dame are things that you didn’t hear when they played these games at Michigan.”
While some Notre Dame fans may not be thrilled about the soccer teams visiting, the soccer teams were very excited. Jurgen Klopp was effusive in his praise of Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame is wow. No club in the world has facilities like University of Notre Dame. It’s not possible” said the Liverpool (and former Borussia Dortmund) manager. “I’d love to have studied here. I’m not sure what.”
Once kickoff arrived the show really got going. A crowd of 40,361 piled in to watch a highly entertaining game. Most of the fans in attendance were clad in the red of Liverpool (including Notre Dame Football Associate Head Coach Mike Elston and his family) and the rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, while not as special as it is at Anfield or the Westfalenstadion, was nonetheless fantastic. The thousands of fans in red also served to remind some Notre Dame fans of a game in 2017 where they played host to Georgia and 25,000 Dawgs fans made the trek and turned Notre Dame Stadium into what was dubbed “Deep South Bend”.
Dortmund went up 1-0 inside the first five minutes through Paco Alcacer thanks to some poor defending by Liverpool and by some dogged persistence by US youth prospect Gio Reyna (son of former US international Claudio Reyna). Liverpool then ratcheted up the pressure and found an equalizer in the 35th minute from Harry Wilson. The second half was more back and forth with Dortmund striking twice in quick succession, first with Thomas Delaney and then Jacob Larsen. Rhian Brewster then dispatched a thunderous penalty for Liverpool to cut the deficit to one but that would be the end of the scoring as Dortmund held on for a 3-2 victory.
Dortmund’s preseason wrapped up with a 2-0-0 record having beaten the Seattle Sounders and now Liverpool. Liverpool’s preseason is just getting rolling. After their game in South Bend they travel to Boston to take on Sevilla at Fenway Park. They follow that up with a trip to New York to take on Sporting Lisbon at Yankee Stadium.
All in all, the first soccer game at Notre Dame Stadium should be considered a massive success. Over 40,000 fans saw two European heavyweights play an exciting and entertaining soccer game in one of the most storied college football stadiums. The facilities drew rave reviews and it was another opportunity for Notre Dame to expand their brand. Here’s to hoping there are more soccer games in South Bend in the future.
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