RALEIGH, N.C.—The Blue Devils played with a vengeance after their sloppy loss to North Carolina last week, but their season-long finishing woes found them coming up short yet again.
Duke took on Pittsburgh Sunday night at Dail Soccer Stadium in the final match of the ACC tournament quarterfinals. After all three of Sunday’s previous games ended with the lower-seeded team defeating the higher-ranked opponent, it looked like something might be in the air to carry the Blue Devils, fourth in the ACC South, to an upset victory against the undefeated, top-seeded Panthers.
Indeed, Duke didn’t hand Pittsburgh an easy win, and for stretches it even looked like the Blue Devils’ game to lose. Ultimately, though, after knotting up the score at 1-1 early in the second half, Duke let its guard down the slightest bit, giving up a goal just three minutes later. that would end its fall season.
“It's a shame, because we had a lot of the playing, a lot of the ball, and we just didn't execute that final third,” head coach John Kerr said. “It's been the story of our season all along—we do well to get to that dangerous area, but we haven't been clinical enough in front of goal.”
Duke (2-6, 2-4 in the ACC) maintained possession in the middle all evening, enjoyed the usual solid defensive performances from the likes of Matthias Frick, Lewis McGarvey and Ian Murphy, and even outshot Pittsburgh (6-0, 4-0) 15-12.
But it was the slurry of close misses that burned the Blue Devils, largely due to playing fast and loose with regard to shot placement. A chorus of groans from socially distant parents rang out from the stands as two shots hit the crossbar and more barely skirted the edges of the goal.
Some teams take a throw everything on goal approach, but that generally hasn’t worked well for Duke because it can’t seem to take meaningful shots in those situations. However, when the Blue Devils focus on passes and playmaking instead of brute force shots, they can rival and score on the best teams.
This game was a tale of both those sides. While Duke’s energy was apparent in the first half, the cognitive aspect wasn’t, and that energy mostly manifested itself as fouls and yellow cards. However, the Blue Devils came out in the second half with all of the energy and none of the sloppiness of those first 45 minutes. They made smarter passes and shots, and eventually it paid off.
Freshman Peter Stroud made a gorgeous pass to fellow freshman Nick Pariano in the 59th minute, and Pariano was able to run the ball into the box and get a good shot off. While his initial shot rebounded off Pittsburgh goalie Nico Campuzano, senior Stephen O’Connell was right there to kick it into the wide open goal and tie the game at one apiece.
It’s hard to say what went wrong after that. The Blue Devils were working hard and attempting those smart plays, but frustration and desperation to save their season started to set in, and the mistakes of the first half reappeared. Fouls were called left and right, and the Panthers were able to put pressure on the cracks that appeared in Duke’s play.
Pittsburgh’s game-winning goal came nearly identical to its opening score in the first half. The first goal saw junior Jackson Walti outrun the Duke defense on the outside, firing in a shot that Blue Devil goalie Will Pulisic got his hand on but not enough to stop. The second goal came from the same angle and same play as senior Alexander Dexter took advantage of irresponsibility near the touchline and made a cross-goal pass right into the feet of sophomore Valentin Noel who tapped it in.
The Blue Devils weren’t able to come back after that, and frustration radiated off the field through the waning minutes and even after the final buzzer. Frick even got himself red carded by yelling at the referee in the last two minutes of the game.
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This kind of loss, yet another close defeat against one of the country’s top teams, begs the question of what Duke has to do to get over the hump.
“I think it's a combination of a number of things,” Kerr said. “Confidence—[we’re] a young team for sure, and we’re growing, a little bit of savvy, a little bit of understanding that you don't have time and you have to be aggressive.”
The Blue Devils, with their myriad of starting freshmen and sophomores, are still building the experience they need to handle the tough game situations Pittsburgh was able to put them in. While those mistakes and that inexperience cost Duke the game and ended its fall season Sunday, there’s no doubt the team has a bright future ahead.