Sophomore Thor Ulfarsson started his career at Duke back in January of 2021, but he has already proven his value as a soccer player in just one semester. He has spent the majority of his life training with the club Breidablik, which is south of Reykjavik, Iceland. The striker had to travel a long way to get here, but playing collegiate soccer in the United States is not uncommon in his family.
“My dad played soccer from a really young age, and he also played in the U.S. for Coastal Carolina,” Ulfarsson said. “He just took me to soccer practice one day and I fell in love with it straightaway. I was about five years old.”
Since the pandemic started, COVID-19 regulations have complicated the international recruiting process. With Ulfarsson being from Iceland, the pandemic affected his ability to come meet the team and staff in person. Where there is usually some opportunity to meet in-person at least once before entering Duke, Ulfarsson and the Duke staff had to trust their guts on all of the information they were able to gather virtually.
“It’s been a very unusual situation the last 18 months, two years, where we couldn't go anywhere to see them,” head coach John Kerr said on the international recruiting process. “With Thor, I saw a lot of video of him playing. Plus, the agency that he works with, I knew the head of the agency very well. We’ve gotten players from him before. I had to kind of trust him a little bit with what I was seeing on video to equal the reality. And so far, so good. We saw that, you know, the reality was that what I and my staff saw on video was the same.”
On Ulfarsson’s end, he described joining Duke as a “no-brainer.” Within his conversations with Kerr, Ulfarsson understood the significance of Duke’s place in the ACC as a big conference with lots of eyes on it. He also understood the academic opportunity that Duke would provide for him.
Usually, players have their Duke start in the fall semester, but Kerr and his staff had to make some important decisions surrounding around the pandemic and player management.
“We intended to bring him in the previous fall,” Kerr said. “But with what was happening with COVID, we didn't know if there was going to be school involved at that time when we were recruiting him. Never mind a soccer season. So, we elected to wait for him to come in the spring. It took a little time to adjust to the speed of play, a little bit different than his style in Iceland. But once he got an understanding of where we are and how we're doing things, he got on really well.”
While with domestic recruiting, the coaching staff can visit and watch the players on several occasions, international recruiting consists of mostly virtual interactions, and then an attempt at an in-person aspect, if possible. Since Kerr and his staff had to rely on watching videos of Ulfarsson playing, there were some specific things that drew them to the Iceland native.
“What attracted me the most is that he scored the scrappy goals and he put himself in dangerous places where you have to be brave and courageous,” Kerr said. “And he wasn't afraid. I knew that was what we were looking for. And I could tell that he scored goals with his head, his left foot his right foot. I just knew that this guy had something about him. And luckily so far, I've been proven right. But I feel that he's going to go on and score a lot more goals for us this year and the years beyond.”
Ulfarsson was able to transition onto the field quickly as he recorded the first Blue Devil hat trick since 2015 to bring in a 3-1 win against Virginia in just his seventh game for the team. He also played in nine games with eight starts last Spring, finishing as a team leader with nine points from four goals and an assist.
Besides his ability to find his role on the field, Ulfarsson has also been able to find his place amongst the team.
“I've gotten to know the guys very well and some of my best friends are here,” Ulfarsson said. “But at the start it was very tough because in one way I wasn't part of the class. I just came along mid-year. And so that was really tough trying to fit in. But now I'd say the guys have welcomed me and I think I'm part of the group now.”
Although Ulfarsson has fit right in with the Blue Devils, being so far from home hasn’t been easy for the sophomore from Kopavogur, Iceland, a town over 3,000 miles away from Durham.
“We often don't talk about our mental health, but it's been really tough having all my family back home and having to use FaceTime,” Ulfarsson said. “I've never lived alone for almost 20 years. But now it's kind of the first time doing that, so it's been really tough. But it's gotten better with time.”
Ulfarsson described North Carolina as being the team he is most looking forward to matching up against this season.
“Just because of the rivalry and my first semester we weren’t able to beat them,” Ulfarsson explained. “So I’m hoping we would beat them this time around.”
Besides beating North Carolina, Ulfarsson has a lot of short-term and long-term goals for his soccer career.
“Short term goals are just to score as much as I can,” said Ulfarsson. “I'm a striker so that way I can help the team as much as I can. But just being a leader on the pitch and driving everyone with me and trying to uphold the standard that Duke wants to hold. Long term goals are definitely trying to go pro.”
Ulfarsson believes in his team and he thinks they can go all the way this year. But he also acknowledges that there will be some challenges him and his teammates will need to overcome along the way to have the successful season he is hoping for.
“For the team, it’s just facing adversity and losing one game isn't the end of everything,” said Ulfarsson, “We’ve just got to bounce back if we lose a game and come back strong in the next one. And for me personally, it's probably just about just psychologically, mentally just staying in the game. I get frustrated when things are not going as well as I want them to.”
Ulfarsson will be an exciting player to watch this season and for the years to come as he continues to grow into his role on the team. Despite the obstacles that he has had to face in coming to play at Duke, including being far from family and adjusting mid-year in the midst of a pandemic, he has proven that he will likely be a key player in his time here.
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