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Duke men's soccer advances to ACC tournament semifinals with penalty shootout win

<p>Matthias Frick anchored a strong Duke defense on Sunday.</p>

Matthias Frick anchored a strong Duke defense on Sunday.

After earning a bye through the first round of the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils avoided an upset and advanced through to the semifinals with a gritty penalty shootout win.

Despite playing much of the match with only 10 men, No. 3 seed Duke took down 11th-seeded Pittsburgh in the ACC quarterfinals Sunday afternoon at Koskinen Stadium. The match ended scoreless after extra time, at which point the Blue Devils won 4-3 on penalties behind an outstanding effort from sophomore goalkeeper Will Pulisic that featured two saves and a goal of his own. Duke handily defeated the Panthers earlier this season, but Pittsburgh delivered a strong showing Sunday, coming close to scoring several times.

“We were up against a team that was very hungry and motivated and had nothing to lose,” Blue Devil head coach John Kerr said. “[Pittsburgh] brought its best game forward and really challenged us.... They really made life difficult for us.”

Both teams began the game aggressively as each looked to open the scoring. Junior Max Moser found himself in space in the fifth minute but was met by Panther goalkeeper Johan Penaranda. Just seven minutes later, Pittsburgh (8-10-1) hit the crossbar twice off a corner kick, mere inches away from finding the back of the net. Later in the 26th minute, another Panthers' shot was cleared off the goal line by Pulisic. On the ensuing counterattack, the Blue Devils (10-5-2) nearly scored, but sophomore Daniel Wright’s attempt was blocked by Penaranda. 

The remainder of the half was dominated by Duke. Freshman Issa Rayyan came close to scoring, but his shot from just outside the box floated just over the crossbar. Later, junior Daniele Proch’s driven effort was saved. The team was also caught offside by Pittsburgh’s back line several times. In the 42nd minute, freshman Seth Kuhn missed the target from just ahead of the goal. Despite having several clear scoring chances, the Blue Devils were unable to convert, a problem that has plagued them in games all season.

“We had some good movements at times, but the finishing started cold,” Kerr said. “We were either offside or just a little bit off with our pass and we weren’t able to convert any goals during the run of play.”

The opening minutes of the second half looked to be the same, as Duke applied constant pressure on the Panthers without coming away with any goals. Rayyan continued to pose problems, getting behind the defense, but the team was unable to capitalize on any passes across the goal. The Blue Devils aggressively pressed Pittsburgh’s defense, suffocating it and constantly winning the ball back. Tempers began to flare as both teams began to commit more fouls as the match shifted to the midfield, resulting in several confrontations. 

The Panthers began to attack more in the 59th minute, forcing senior Ciaran McKenna into a clumsy challenge that saw him pick up a yellow card. Just two minutes later, McKenna made another heavy tackle and was sent off on a second yellow. Duke was down to 10 men, and Kerr had to make adjustments to offset the loss.

“We had to dig deep,” Kerr said. “Daniel Wright had to slide in centrally and Suniel [Veerakone] slid out wide, and obviously we're only working with one forward.”

Although the team was forced to commit to the defensive end more, the Blue Devils still created many scoring opportunities as Rayyan and Proch continuously looked to attack. Duke managed 18 shots in the match, and the offense, especially on the counterattack, looked potent despite McKenna’s absence. Kerr said he was “very happy” with the team’s response.

The last 10 minutes of regulation were frantic. In the 80th minute, the Blue Devils nearly conceded an own goal as they struggled to deal with a series of Pittsburgh crosses. In the 81st, freshman Aedan Stanley made a key tackle to stop a free Panther run into the box. Under a minute later, Pulisic was forced to make a huge save on Pittsburgh striker Edward Kizza. On the ensuing counterattack, Rayyan found Proch in space and he put the ball into the net but was ruled just offside, and the goal was called back. This frantic back and forth continued until the end of regulation, as both sides grew more desperate to score.

Both extra time periods saw similar action, as the Panthers immediately found themselves on the offensive. Kizza received the ball six yards out from goal in the 92nd minute, but his shot bounced off the crossbar out of harm’s way. After that, it was all Duke as the Blue Devils looked to find the winner. However, a series of offside calls and wayward shots kept the game level as the teams headed into penalties.

The Panthers converted on their first three attempts, while Proch, Wright and sophomore Kristofer Gardarsson scored for Duke. On the fourth shot, Pulisic guessed correctly and dove to the bottom left corner, saving the penalty and putting the Blue Devils in a chance to take the lead. Surprisingly, Pulisic then stepped up to take the next shot, which he placed in the top-right corner.

“I was ready for it,” Pulisic said of his attempt. “I knew what I was doing and I had confidence in myself.”

Pulisic then saved Pittsburgh’s final attempt, handing Duke the victory.

The Blue Devils had been well-prepared for the shootout thanks to an increased focus on taking penalties in practice. 

“We’ve been practicing penalties for the past week, so I knew we were confident in our ability to score,” Pulisic said.

Now, Duke will begin preparing for No. 2 seed North Carolina in the semifinals. The Blue Devils will look to convert on more of their opportunities while repeating their defensive performance against an opponent that beat them 1-0 during the regular season.

Duke faces the Tar Heels in Cary at 7 p.m. Wednesday night.