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Duke men's soccer ties Charlotte in gritty spring opener

Senior Nicolas Macri totaled three shots on the night.
Senior Nicolas Macri totaled three shots on the night.

Rarely are scoreless games entertaining. But what the Blue Devils couldn’t deliver on the scoreboard Friday evening they certainly delivered in excitement. 

Duke met Charlotte on a cold Friday night at Koskinen Stadium under a blanket of grey, drizzling clouds to open its spring season. Both teams fought tooth and nail through 90 minutes of regulation and an additional two periods of overtime, raining shots on the goaltenders and sending each other flying across the field. In the end, though, neither team could muster a single goal, with the contest finishing in a 0-0 tie. 

“It's not easy—I can attest to that as a former player, and it's frustrating,” head coach John Kerr said. “And I'd like the frustration to manifest into continuing to believe in yourself...and know that...it's going to come…. So, it's exciting, because I know that we're going to score goals, and it's just a matter of time.”

While scoreless is never how you want to end a game, the opportunities were there in multitudes, born largely from the fire and passion the players exhibited throughout the contest. From the very start, the Blue Devils were playing with the grit of a team at the end of their season, not the start—the plays were faster, the hits were harder and the emotions were higher. 

Freshman Peter Stroud, whose white jersey was mostly green by the end of the contest, got into a bit of a tussle near the beginning of the game after accidentally tripping a Charlotte player near the bench. And fellow freshman Nick Pariano, anticipating one of the opponent’s big hits coming, leapt over the defender and twisted his ankle in the process, subsequently leaving the game near the end of the first half.

Duke (2-6-1) ended the night with two yellow cards while Charlotte (0-0-2) racked up three, including an incident near the end of regulation when 49er redshirt senior Cooper Nugent yanked Stroud’s jersey in transition.

In such a tough, physical game, it’s easy for frustration to lead to simple mistakes, but the Blue Devils did the opposite. In the second half, Duke dominated Charlotte—which finished the 2019 season ranked No. 19 in the country but didn't take the field this past fall—and played the majority of the final 45 minutes of regulation in the 49ers' third of the field. 

Were it not for the acrobatics of Charlotte goaltender Daniel Kuzemka, who made six saves and several back-to-back, it’s easy to imagine the Blue Devils going home with a win. Junior Conor Kelly and senior Nicolas Macri totaled three shots apiece, with one of Kelly’s shots actually slipping through Kuzemka’s hands, though the goalie got just enough contact on it to redirect it to the crossbar. 

Leading the team with four shots, though, was the new freshman addition from Iceland, Thorleifur Ulfarsson. 

Ulfarsson is one of a few new faces starting for the team this spring. Junior Eliot Hamill came up with some huge saves in his first collegiate start in goal, after four-year starter Will Pulisic graduated in the fall. Furthermore, a few additional men who are normally substitutions started due to the absences of captains Jack Doran and Matthias Frick, the latter of which was automatically suspended for the contest after garnering a red card in the final game of the fall season.

However, the pieces all fit and worked together like a well-oiled machine, holding the defensive end, making clean passes in the middle, generating shots and unyielding offensive pressure. 

“We came out and took it to them…. Our soccer really improved and we created some excellent opportunities, and on another night we would have scored two or three goals,” Kerr said.

If only one of its many opportunities ended up in the back of the net, Duke could’ve opened its spring campaign with a win. Still, if this is the level of soccer we can expect from the Blue Devils, they're in for an exciting season. 

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