After nearly a year of waiting, victory finally returned to Koskinen Stadium for the men’s soccer team.
Spurred by a stellar career debut by sophomore walk-on Luke Thomas, Duke convincingly routed Liberty in a 3-0 blowout, handing out a near-perfect performance on both ends of the field in the season opener.
The highlight of the matchup came in the 58th minute when the two sides seemed to be in a deadlock after coming back from the break.
Just as the Flames were starting to find some rhythm linking up plays in the midfield, sophomore forward Miguel Ramirez burst out of thin air to score an otherworldly header 16 yards away from the goal, giving Duke a momentous 2-0 lead that shattered any new-found confidence of the opponents.
“It was huge to get the second goal because it was frustrating not to get the second goal in the first half,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “Sometimes if you don’t get that second goal, you allow one mistake and that can hurt you which we experienced in the past and we were scrambling to get a result. Getting that second goal tonight took the pressure off and allowed us to play a little bit more freely.”
The player that delivered the essential crossing from the left to Ramirez was Luke Thomas, a walk-on who just joined the squad this preseason. With his combination of skill and instinct, Kerr knew right away that he uncovered a much-needed diamond for a team that clearly needs more attacking creativity.
“I wasn’t surprised by his performance tonight,” Kerr said. “We’ve been pleased with Luke Thomas from the get-go. From the start of the preseason, it’s clear that this guy knows what he is doing. you can see him anxious to learn and he’s catching every word that we’ve talked about, digesting it, and putting it into practice.”
The Charlotte native would go on to play a total of 45 minutes in his debut and he rewarded the trust the coaching staff placed upon him by sealing the game with a goal in the 87th minute.
Following a high-quality freekick by midfielder Nick Pariano that forced the Liberty goal keeper to parry the ball away, Thomas appeared fortuitously at the spot where the saved ball landed before any Liberty defenders could get to it. He then calmly slotted the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal in a crowded box. The desperate effort of a Liberty defender to slide tackle the ball only confirmed the goal more spectacularly.
But Thomas was not the only shining star for Duke (1-0) Friday night. From the back four to the front striker, the team as a whole showcased an incredible level of intensity throughout the game. And it was this high-pressing and quick-flowing style of play that helped the Blue Devils establish an early advantage.
Only seven minutes into the game, junior forward Scotty Taylor received the possession deep in the box. Skillfully shielding the ball with his frame against a Flame defender, Taylor managed to turn 180 degrees towards the goal before firing a stunner that unfortunately got rejected by the right post.
Before the Flames (0-1) could regroup and settle down in the back three, senior Conor Kelly came back to threaten the opposition two minutes later, striking an unexpected shot from just outside the box. Unable to read Kelly’s intention, the Liberty goalkeeper paid the price for his slow reaction and the quick ball found the left corner of the goal to open Duke’s scoring of the night.
This year’s Duke team featured many key players that are in their first two years of collegiate experience. The valuable leadership provided by the few senior players like goal keeper Eliot Hamill, central defender Ian Murphy and Kelly was crucial to making a promising young team thrive. This season opener against Liberty showed a glimpse of how good this team can be when the younger cohorts feel supported.
In the freshman class, Ruben Mesalles played the entire 90 minutes of the game, while the duo of forward Jai Bean and midfielder Felix Barajas played 43 and 45 minutes, respectively. Mesalles recorded an indirect assist in the goal of Ramirez. Bean showcased what he’s capable of with a backheel pass that led to a one-on-one opportunity for sophomore Peter Stroud that ended in Duke’s second post hit of the game. Barajas proved his worth on the right flank with his nifty movement to carve out space even against tight defense. Most of the time, less polished defenders could only resort to brutal fouling to stop the freshman.
The Flames, having beaten a formidable opponent in No. 4 North Carolina in the preseason, looked lost at Koskinen under the intensity of the Blue Devils. Throughout the game, their main way of seeking opportunities was delivering long-distance prayers from the backline in the hope that a striker could connect to it at the other end. The strategy was mostly harmless for Duke as the Flames only had five shots of which only one made it within the frame of the goal.
Up next, the Blue Devils will suit up against Merrimack Sunday at 12 p.m, once again in Koskinen Stadium.
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