An early set piece goal put North Carolina in the lead just three minutes in, and despite a hard-fought contest, Duke wasn’t able to recover.
After an exhilarating double-overtime win against N.C. State last weekend, the Blue Devils fell 2-0 to their rival Tar Heels Friday night at Koskinen Stadium. Duke got off to a slow start to begin the contest, with North Carolina dominating possession of the ball and forcing the home team into questionable situations, including a foul that would eventually become the first goal of the game.
Despite this being their first official game of the season, the Tar Heels came out of the gate with speed and precision that the Blue Devils couldn’t match until well into the contest. Up against tough teams, those first minutes matter.
“They pressed us hard from the beginning,” head coach John Kerr said. “To give an early goal away gave them a lot of confidence, and it took us a while to get into our groove.”
North Carolina’s early goal—a perfectly-placed free kick from junior Milo Garvanian that found a wide open Matt Constant for the score—gave the visiting squad the confidence it needed to control the game for the vast majority of the first half. Though Duke (1-2, 1-1 in the ACC) managed to get some shots off over the first 45 minutes, the quality just wasn’t there, and none of them were ever a real threat to the Tar Heels’ lead.
After a valiant effort and some good opportunities for the Blue Devils in the second half, North Carolina (1-0, 1-0 in the ACC) ultimately drew another foul with just under 20 minutes left in the game. This time, senior Santiago Herrera’s free kick deflected off a defender in a lucky bounce that bypassed Duke goaltender Will Pulisic into the back of the net. Though not for lack of trying, the Blue Devils couldn’t get on the scoreboard, and the Tar Heels opened their season with a win.
Duke’s defense worked hard all evening, bailing the team out on several occasions and making North Carolina work extra hard for shots on goal. Defenders even accounted for five of the Blue Devils’ nine shots throughout the night.
Duke has a young team this year with many freshmen playing big minutes, especially on the defensive end. Anchoring the Blue Devils’ defense alongside veterans Matthias Frick and Ian Murphy are freshmen Antino Lopez, Amir Daley and Lewis McGarvey, who led the team with three shots Friday.
Despite the talent his young players have, Kerr says a big challenge this season is finding where everyone fits and developing team chemistry, especially with five freshmen in the starting lineup.
“It’s still a young season,” Kerr said. “Only three games in, and we’re still finding our personality.”
By the second half, it looked like the Blue Devils had found a bit of the spark they needed to go toe-to-toe with an aggressive North Carolina team. Duke dominated in the midfield for long stretches and kept the Tar Heels from even touching the ball, let alone generating scoring opportunities.
However, the Blue Devils struggled to actually get the ball near the opponent’s net, and even when they did they almost looked surprised to be there. Panic caught up with them, and they often made sloppy mistakes that ended good drives either without a shot or with a weak one.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Weak shots were the achilles heel of otherwise really good plays for Duke. The Blue Devils tallied nine shots against the Tar Heels’ six, yet the visitors led with four shots on goal against Duke’s three. Whenever the home team did get a shot off a good corner kick or quality passes up the middle, it felt like the shot inevitably went high or wide, making North Carolina goalie Alec Smir’s job much easier than it should have been. Staying calm and taking well-placed shots will be key to winning games in the future.
The game wasn’t a disaster by any means. For every bit of sloppiness Duke showed, the Tar Heels showed the same amount albeit at different times. Kerr did single out ball movement as a strength from this game that he wants to carry forward.
However, it came down to performance under pressure and in dangerous situations—the Tar Heels rose to the occasion to score those big goals, while the Blue Devils cracked and gave up valuable space and time.
“We didn’t push out quick enough to close down the space and trouble them.... They were superior on the ball,” Kerr said of the team’s response to pressure from North Carolina.
Duke will play N.C. State again next Friday, this time on the road.