With a cloud of controversy over his head stemming from rape allegations that became public last spring, Ciaran McKenna took center stage in Duke's regular-season opener.
McKenna scored in the waning seconds of the first half to lead the Blue Devils to a 2-0 victory against Central Florida in the John Rennie Nike Invitational at Koskinen Stadium. Senior defender Markus Fjortoft later added a header in the 83rd minute to seal the win, as freshman Will Pulisic recorded four saves and a clean sheet in his first-ever collegiate appearance.
But the star of the evening on the field was McKenna, who played a critical role in Duke's attacking 3-4-3 formation that gave the Knights fits and applied constant pressure in the final third throughout the game. After the Blue Devils had plenty of chances in the early going, he finally cashed in right before the break.
The junior was suspended from school for six semesters last spring, but won an injunction to stay while his case is resolved after suing Duke and Dean of Student Conduct Stephen Bryan for mishandling his case.
"Last year, I definitely lost my confidence playing," McKenna said. "Things weren't clicking on the field because of the off-the-field stuff, but this year I feel I've kept my head down. I've kept quiet and working hard in the spring and summer. I've had tremendous support from all the athletic staff and the coaches. I'm just happy that I can play here and hopefully keep on performing well."
As is often the case in early-season matchups, the contest was tightly officiated and both sides drew plenty of whistles. A total of 33 fouls were called between Duke (1-0) and Central Florida, with five yellow cards shown as well—three for the home side.
The physicality did not seem to impact the Blue Devils, who debuted their new setup in the regular season after deploying it throughout the preseason. Duke earned several free-kick opportunities in the first 45 minutes and nearly got on the board in the 37th minute, but Brian White was called offsides after tapping home a header inside the six-yard box.
For head coach John Kerr, Friday was a very positive sign—his team is looking to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
"I like it," Kerr said of the 3-4-3 formation. "It forces the other team to deal with a lot of numbers in different areas, and once we get a little bit more familiar with what we're doing, I think we'll be even better at it."
And to generate a pair of scores from two players that have not necessarily been major threats on the offensive end of the field in the past only made Kerr smile that much more.
"Really happy with a lot of things out there tonight," Kerr said. "I feel we can get better. It's still early in the season—we're two weeks in, roughly.... I'm happy with where we're progressing and a lot of guys got time tonight."
Thanks to an experienced back trio featuring a pair of seniors in Fjortoft and Carter Manley alongside freshman Matthias Frick, it was a relatively simple outing for Pulisic in net. The 19-year-old Mechanicsville, Va., native played all 90 minutes in his first regular-season contest for the Blue Devils after spending last year with Borussia Dortmund's U19 side in Germany.
Just four of the Knights' seven shots were on target and Pulisic stopped them all, including a lunging save in the 51st minute to prevent Central Florida (0-1) from leveling the game at one apiece.
"It was nothing that I hadn't seen before," Pulisic said. "I just try to be sharp and focus in on everything, so I felt good. I didn't feel like we were in danger too often.
"Obviously, everywhere you play around the world is different.... It's just about going out every day and learning something new and applying that to your game."
Although the preseason saw a bit of competition between Pulisic and senior Joe Ohaus, Kerr said following Friday's game that the first-year netminder will continue to be between the pipes "for sure."
"[He's] very poised as a freshman," Kerr said. "He's as solid as a rock and I didn't feel any worry when he was back there—used the ball well, distributed it to the right people at the right times, disguised it at times and made some solid saves. He wasn't clumsy, didn't allow rebounds and was solid all night."
It will now be a short turnaround for Duke, as it continues play in the John Rennie Nike Invitational Sunday afternoon at Koskinen Stadium. The Blue Devils host Fordham at 2:30 p.m. following a noon matchup between the Knights and Elon—the Phoenix and Rams drew 0-0 earlier Friday evening in a grueling contest that lasted 110 minutes.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."