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Duke men's soccer falls to Clemson in double-overtime heartbreaker

Duke goalie Will Pulisic stood strong against Clemson's high-powered offense.
Duke goalie Will Pulisic stood strong against Clemson's high-powered offense.

Duke proved it could compete with one of the best teams in the ACC, but when all was said and done just couldn’t quite do enough to pull out the victory.

After a decisive win against N.C. State last week, Duke fell 2-1 to Clemson Friday night in double overtime. Approximately 1,000 socially-distanced spectators spread across Historic Riggs Field in Clemson, S.C., not including those eagerly watching from behind the fences, and music from the Clemson University Tiger Band punctuated the game during breaks. It somewhat resembled a typical game day, a peculiar sight in these abnormal times.

The Blue Devils played with zeal after scoring the first goal of the night, but Clemson quickly rebounded, pushing the game to sudden death overtime, where it would end the game on a perfect play. 

With Duke down a man due to a red card on freshman defender Amir Daley in the opening seconds of double overtime, the Tigers executed. Senior forward Kimarni Smith pushed the ball down the pitch before crossing it over to sophomore forward James Brighton, who headed in the game-winner.

The Blue Devils played strong throughout the night and had moments during the second half of regulation where it looked like they were about to take the lead, but ultimately just weren’t able to convert when they had the chance.

"It was a really good performance, and we deserved a better result," head coach John Kerr said. "At the same time, I told them it's a cruel game, and you need to convert your chances to take advantage of your performance." 

Duke (2-3, 2-2 in the ACC) outshot Clemson 6-1 in the second half and registered nine corner kicks throughout the entire game compared to the Tigers’ one. The Blue Devils proved unable to capitalize on those opportunities, though, with two shots that looked like a guarantee to find the back of the net eventually soaring a tad high. 

Those missed goals hung heavy in the air as the game clock continued to wind down, with converting chances into scores being a topic Kerr has continuously spoken on as a focus for the team.

Still, Duke played perhaps its best soccer of the 2020 season throughout the second half, with the near-goals being a testament to the smart, creative playmaking that the Blue Devils brought to the field over the final 45 minutes.

"We had a bit of a run toward the end of the first half, which gave us some confidence going into halftime," Kerr said. "And in the second half, our performance was spectacular." 

The opening half was largely a game of tug of war, with each team getting solid opportunities at the net. Eventually, Duke was able to strike first.

In the 21st minute, sophomore Scotty Taylor rushed up the field and passed to senior Stephen O'Connell, bypassing three defenders in the process. O'Connell, going one on one with Clemson goalkeeper George Marks, then slid the ball into the left corner just fast enough to outpace the diving goalie. 

Only 13 minutes later, however, Clemson (4-1, 2-1) evened the scoreboard. After a shot from junior forward Grayson Barber bounced off the post, Brighton fired a quick rebound that shot past Duke goalkeeper Will Pulisic. 

Brighton’s two scores Friday were his first two goals of the season for the Tigers.

The Blue Devils knew it'd be a tough game coming into the contest. Clemson was projected to win the ACC at the start of the season, and there's no doubt that the Tigers brought aggression and speed to the pitch Friday.

In addition, midfielder Jack Doran, a key veteran player who's scored two goals this season, was out for Duke, with a handful of minor injuries also sending other key players to the bench temporarily.

In these moments, the Blue Devils looked toward fresh faces and depth players to fill in the gaps. O'Connell, who stepped into Doran's starting position, scored Duke's only goal of the game and recorded two shots on goal. He played 71 minutes, 51 more than he did last week, and was a menace to the Tiger defense the entire time. 

Overall, eight of the 11 freshmen on the team saw action.

"Holy moly. Oh, that's good,” Kerr said in response to the number of freshmen who played Friday. “That's good for the present, and the future." 

Though the game didn't end the way they wanted, the Blue Devils hung on until the very end and even dominated in parts against a very talented Clemson squad. Some creases still need to be ironed out, including shot conversion and penalties, but this game showed that Duke can go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the conference.

"They're a top team, and they really put us under pressure in the first 25 minutes,” Kerr said. “But we were resilient. We stood strong. We scored the first goal."

Next Friday, the Blue Devils look to bounce back against No. 1 Wake Forest back at Koskinen Stadium.

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