The Louisville men’s soccer team will face a big threat Friday when it takes on No. 1 Notre Dame, whose biggest weapon is from the Cardinals’ own backyard.
Trinity High School alum Chris Hubbard is Notre Dame’s goalkeeper, the man dispatched as the last line of defense to stop the Cards in their tracks.
Hubbard can still recall his first Trinity-St. Xavier soccer game his freshman year of high school. He remembers the sold-out crowd, the electric homefield atmosphere and most of all the final score: a 2-1 victory for the Shamrocks.
Now Hubbard, a senior at Notre Dame, is finding success playing for a different team reminiscent of the Emerald Isle. After not seeing any match action his first two years, Hubbard started every match in 2015. This season, he has recorded four shutouts in six games for the top-ranked Fighting Irish, and his .920 save percentage is sixth in the country.
Out of high school, Hubbard was briefly recruited by U of L. Louisville coach Ken Lolla said the team’s goalkeeping spots were full at the time and that Hubbard wanted something different academically. Louisville and Notre Dame did not play each other in 2015, so it will be the first time Hubbard will play against Lolla’s team when they meet at 7 p.m. Friday.
“It’s interesting sometimes, especially with goalkeepers — it’s all about timing,” Lolla said. “There are some times when kids locally get away and go somewhere else that you wish you had the opportunity to keep them close, and that was just one of those that for him it was the best fit.”
It might have been for the best — Hubbard grew up a Kentucky fan. He said he will refrain from using U of L’s recent 1-0 loss to UK as a taunt on the field.
“I didn’t see the game, but I did see the score,” Hubbard said over the phone, sounding slightly amused. “I have a few friends who play for UK. … I try to stay away from trash talk.”
Hubbard still has another soccer connection to his hometown: Louisville City FC. Hubbard has trained with Louisville City’s goalkeeping coach, Thabane Sutu, for nine years.
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Sutu, who also coaches for local club team United 1996 FC, first saw Hubbard play on a rival under-12 club team. Sutu was immediately impressed by the young boy’s potential and continued working with him on club teams and privately from then on. Last summer, Hubbard asked if he could train with Sutu and Louisville City, and the squad accepted him right away.
“Whether it’s one day or two days, he always tells me, ‘I’m going to be in town, can we train?'” Sutu said. “Holidays he trains with LouCity, and his work ethic is one of the best I’ve seen for kids his age. That’s probably why he’s at the level that he’s in. He puts in a lot of long hours training. That’s probably why we’re still working together today.”
However committed he is to the position today, Hubbard initially became a goalkeeper as the means to an end. When he was 9, Hubbard wanted to join the same select soccer team as his cousin. The only problem was Hubbard wasn’t a talented enough field player to make the team.
“I figured I would have a better chance at making it as a goalkeeper,” Hubbard said. “My parents told me that at tryouts, they asked, ‘Who here is a goalkeeper?’ I raised my hand and (my parents) were really shocked. I had never played before. I didn’t even have gloves or anything.”
He has come a long way. Hubbard said his greatest attributes on the pitch are his work ethic, his calm demeanor and his consistency. Following Sutu’s advice, Hubbard has developed a pregame ritual for road matches. First, he listens to his customized playlist (it includes Shakira’s World Cup song, G-Eazy and Eminem). Then it’s time to get dressed: He puts on his right cleat, then his left cleat, ties his left cleat before his right and wraps his left glove before his right glove.
This behavior, which Hubbard semi-jokingly termed “obsessive compulsive,” is part of what makes him so driven as a goalkeeper.
“When he was younger he used to get frustrated when he made mistakes, which was kind of typical,” Sutu said. “Something that we worked on was that, as a goalkeeper, more than any other position on the pitch, you’ve got to be able to have a thick skin. It’s not really about the mistakes itself; it’s about how you respond.”
Hubbard hasn’t made many mistakes this season, allowing just two goals. If he does, though, Sutu will let him know. Sutu watches Notre Dame matches on television or online whenever he can, taking notes. At halftime, he texts Hubbard with suggestions for adjustment. If Hubbard doesn’t answer, Sutu texts the Notre Dame goalkeeping coach; whatever it takes to reach Hubbard.
“He always gets the message,” Sutu said.
When Notre Dame visits U of L at Lynn Stadium on Friday night, Hubbard’s family, old teammates and old coaches, as well as the entire Trinity soccer team, will be in attendance. Hubbard said he won’t feel extra pressure; when you play for an undefeated team, you get used to it.
“It’s interesting because when we first saw the rankings we didn’t expect to be No. 1,” Hubbard said. “A lot of teams are ready whenever they see that and they kind of mark us on their schedule. … Every team is going to give us their best. I like to say they throw the kitchen sink at us.”
U of L, with a 4-1-1 record, won its Atlantic Coast Conference opener Sept. 9 at Pittsburgh and beat Xavier on Tuesday to remain unbeaten at home. The Cardinals are unranked but receiving votes, and a win over Notre Dame could launch them into the Top 25.
“We’re not so much going in saying, ‘Hey, can we knock off No. 1?’ but, more importantly, ‘How do we get points against another ACC team?’” Lolla said. “And I do think that we continue to grow and get better, and as we do, whether it’s the No. 1 team in the country or anybody else, I think we have the ability to compete, and especially at home.”
In his prediction, Hubbard maintained the quiet confidence he has become known for.
“I think we can get the win.”