It’s easy to forget how much you miss the feel of a crowd, and how little you pine for soccer fans’ yelling over offsides and fouls. Duke took the opportunity to remind me of both Friday.
A strong crowd energized the seventh-ranked Blue Devils, who were fresh off a tough loss to No. 4 West Virginia, to a 1-0 win against N.C. State at Dail Soccer Field. From warmups to postgame, the stands were active enough to make the match seem like a usual game at Koskinen Stadium, with the many Wolfpack students and fans drowned out by familiar faces for Duke, including players’ families and Blue Devil legend and NC Courage centre back Schuyler DeBree.
“My mom and my aunt and my grandma were able to come to the game, and they're not able to come very often. But back at Koskinen, we only have the cardboard cutouts, so it's a little quiet,” said Blue Devil wingback Mia Gyau. “But the fans always add something, and it's fun to hear the parents cheering your name. And it's just like, ‘Oh, yay, we're doing it for them too, to make them happy and make them proud, as well as ourselves and our teammates and our coaches.' But it's like that added boost for us."
Outside the ACC tournament in November and the Oct. 23 match at North Carolina, Duke (10-5-2) has had to go its 2020-21 season without familiar faces in the bleachers. And even in those events, the stands were much emptier than they’d be on most nights.
Friday night was different. And not just because of the couple dozen people on either side of the stands, but because of Dail Soccer Field's scale. The pitch and the bleachers and the booth are more comparable to a high school’s than the glorious stadia of Koskinen Stadium and Dorrance Field, and under the Friday night lights, that was the perfect atmosphere for a low-stakes game between conference foes that didn’t even count as a conference game.
Duke came out back in the 4-3-3 alignment it's used for years, switching from the 4-4-2 box that had seemed so promising last month, on account of poor passing in Morgantown, W.Va., last week. The Blue Devils had some strong opportunities in the first half and dominated possession against N.C. State (4-2-1), but failed to generate much inside the 18, taking only five shots on account of not connecting on the final passes.
As the Blue Devils came out of halftime, their side of the crowd cheered them on, energizing the frigid night. Duke would immediately make progress in the second half, attacking with a fervor, en route to 10 shots in the period. In the 61st minute, Gyau finally opened the scoring, driving down the left touch line, turning the corner at the box and shooting at Wolfpack goalie Maria Echezarreta, who deflected the ball back to Gyau, presenting her with an open goal for her first score of the season.
Duke would have several more close shots that barely missed adding onto the score. And as the Blue Devils became settled into comfort on the pitch, so too did their fans. While friends and family seemed at first to just be excited to be back together at a game, it wasn’t long before they’d all settled into a rhythm, back to the normalcy of loudly disputing every foul, yelling “yes, yes, NO!,” parents ribbing each other, etc.
More than anything, the high school-esque structure of Dail and the warm familiarity of those in attendance simply condensed the ambience of the event. With North Carolina allowing limited capacity at outdoor events, colleges have been able to make nights like this more common. Sitting in Dail, having been vaccinated two weeks prior, it became clear to me that there wasn’t much standing between Friday night and a season in which fan-less games are just as unusual as they used to be.
“Anything that makes the world become a little bit more normal's great, ain't it?” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “But I just heard all the girls saying, ‘Oh it was unbelievable to have fans here.’ And we had a good group when it was in West Virginia. We didn't give them a lot to cheer for, but we had a good group up there. And this one, we gave them more to cheer for, so it is fantastic to have them.”
Duke will play what should be its last fan-less game of the season next Sunday, when it invites No. 18 Vanderbilt to close out the regular season.
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