It doesn’t take much to lose a soccer game. The slightest break in concentration can spell disaster, even for a team that controls play throughout the game.
A pair of overtime defeats, to UC-Santa Barbara 3-2, and to SMU 1-0, leave Duke with just one victory in its first four tries.
Against the No. 9 Gauchos (3-0) on Friday night, before a 3,000-strong crowd at Koskinen Stadium, the Blue Devils (1-3) came out energized. Just 48 seconds ran off the clock before freshman Nick Palodichuk nabbed the first goal of his career off a feed through heavy traffic from senior Christopher Tweed-Kent.
Yet while the early strike boosted Duke’s confidence, UC-Santa Barbara made sure to quickly extinguish the spark. In the sixth minute, Blue Devil defender Riley Wolfe mistakenly saved a pass that was headed out of bounds. Gaucho forward Sam Garza recovered the ball, and with only the keeper to beat, he knocked the equalizing goal into the top left corner. Behind the sudden momentum change, the Gauchos controlled the rest of the half. Despite being outshot 10-4 in the period, however, Duke managed to keep the Gauchos at bay, and the score went into halftime knotted at a goal apiece.
In the second half, the Blue Devils looked like an entirely different team as they began dictating the tempo of play, and scoring opportunities became more plentiful. In the 67th minute, freshman Andrew Morales launched a rocket from outside the 18-yard box that just caught the fingertips of UC-Santa Barbara goalie Andre Grandt. In the 74th minute, Palodichuk nearly added his second goal of the night off a free kick, only to again be denied by Grandt.
Yet in the 80th minute, disaster struck the Blue Devils when a UC-Santa Barbara forward was fouled in the 18-yard box. Luis Silva converted the penalty kick for the Gauchos, putting the Blue Devils in a late hole.
Kerr’s resilient squad wasn’t ready to go away just yet, though. As the clock ticked down under three minutes, junior Andrew Wenger tapped home an equalizer after the ball ricocheted through heavy traffic within the six-yard box.
“We are a very fit team, and they were tired,” senior Christopher Tweed-Kent said. “[But] we need to make sure we are strong defensively and never give them a glimpse, because the minute we give them a glimpse, that’s where they get some energy.”
Despite outplaying the Gauchos in the overtime period and once again dictating play, UC-Santa Barbara got that glimpse and was able to convert in the 99th minute. Catching the defenders slightly out of position, Gaucho sophomore Dom Sarle made a run and fired a shot that narrowly beat Duke goalkeeper James Belshaw to end the match. The loss was Duke’s first in a home opener since 1992.
Duke’s fast start in Friday’s play wasn’t repeated on Sunday. The No. 17 Mustangs (1-2) applied consistent pressure on the Blue Devil defense for the first ten minutes before Daniel Tweed-Kent rifled a breakaway shot across the face of the SMU goal, and the tide turned in Duke’s favor. Sebastien Ibeagha nearly headed in the ensuing corner, and for the rest of the game, the Blue Devils kept the heat on the Mustang net.
In the 35th minute, Wenger made a fabulous run on the goal, chipping the ball over sliding SMU keeper Jaime Ibarra, but the ball rebounded off the post and was quickly cleared.
Wenger, Daniel Tweed-Kent, and junior midfielder Ryan Brown worked well together to create plenty of scoring opportunities, but Ibarra and the Mustang defense stymied the Duke attack with deflections and key tackles.
As the midway point of the half passed, SMU slowed the play down significantly, with Ibarra taking as much time as he could to punt the ball away each time. This added to the Blue Devils’ frustration, and especially in the last ten minutes, the intensity of play ratcheted up as Duke tried even more fervently to keep the pressure going. Chris Tweed-Kent was yellow carded for an aggressive tackle in the 86th minute, and an SMU player was carded just 90 seconds later after getting tangled up with Chris’s brother Daniel.
“You depend on the referee to keep the play going, and not let the time lapse,” Kerr said. “It’s frustrating, because we were stronger and they knew it, and they were tired. And we’re like, ‘Let’s get it going.’ So they wasted the last 20 minutes of the second half, and tried to waste the overtime.”
Wenger made a final exciting run on goal with just 30 seconds remaining on the clock, but again could not convert the opportunity, sending the Blue Devils into overtime for the second straight game. Duke maintained its high effort into the extra period, but a lapse in defensive play opened a window for the Mustangs.
A botched tackle at the top of the 18-yard box left the ball free, and after it bounced around between Duke defenders and SMU attackers, Mustang forward Arthur Ivo broke away from the pack and finished an easy point-blank shot from 12 yards out.
“[We were] not strong enough on the tackle,” Kerr said. “The ball was there to be won, and we were slow in reacting.”
Injuries and absences also played into the Blue Devils’ defensive misfortunes over the weekend. The team missed Ibeagha for Friday’s game after he received two yellow cards in the team’s previous contest against Furman, and freshman Riley Wolfe injured his knee Friday and missed Sunday’s match. Even on Sunday, Kerr was still uncertain of the severity of Wolfe’s injury.
Despite the tough result, Kerr was encouraged by his team’s play throughout the weekend.
“We’re creating some really good opportunities, some great movement, and I’m really pleased with the performance overall as well,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that at a crucial time, both Friday night and today, we got punished for lack of concentration, and it hurts.”
He acknowledges that tough breaks in both games ultimately doomed his team but doesn’t let that dampen his confidence in his squad.
“So now they’re walking away from this game very happy,” he said of SMU, “and very lucky.”
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