Surely the fairytale must end eventually, right?
Well it didn’t Tuesday night.
Duke’s remarkable season continued as the fourth-ranked Blue Devils convincingly dismissed Howard 4-0 at Koskinen Stadium. Sophomore forward Thorleifur Ulfarsson scored a hat trick and freshman midfielder Felix Barajas accounted for the other goal as Duke put in a clinic in attacking play.
The story of the night was undoubtedly Ulfarsson’s performance. In the 26th minute, a fantastic, weaving run by freshman midfielder Shakur Mohammed followed by a clever through-ball led Ulfarsson in on goal, where the Icelandic star confidently chipped the keeper into the bottom left corner of the net. He completed his hat-trick via a 55th minute cross from sophomore Nick Pariano that he one-touched through the goalkeeper’s legs and a 73rd minute rifle into the bottom-left from just inside the box following a pinpoint Barajas pass.
Any long-time fan of soccer will tell you the hardest thing for a player to do is score goals and score goals consistently. The general metric (in professional leagues, at least) for a productive striker is a goal every other game; Ulfarsson, in just four games this season, has scored five times.
“He’s a great player and a great goal-scorer,” head coach John Kerr said. “He knows his way around the box and we anticipated that he would be able to put goals on the scoreboard.”
Tuesday’s hat-trick was Ulfarsson’s second of his collegiate career, the first coming last season against Virginia.
“The other one was a bit better because UVA is a big team that plays in the ACC,” he said. “But scoring three goals is always good.”
While last season’s hat-trick may have been more significant in terms of opponents, don’t let that take away from how impressive Tuesday’s goals were. Not only was Ulfarsson the final stamp on a series of Blue Devil attacking onslaughts, his link-up play and general presence gave the Bison backline plenty to worry about.
“He's still a long way to go from being the best version of Thor,” Kerr said. “It's exciting because there's more to come. He's a force to be reckoned with.”
While Duke (7-1, 3-0 in the ACC) was excellent on the night, Howard (1-4-2) came to play and made the Blue Devils work for their win. Two fast counterattacks in the 28th and 31st minutes were narrowly deterred by the Duke backline and on another night, very easily could have turned the game on its head.
“I have to admit that they surprised me with their effort and their tenacity,” Kerr said. “They really were up for the game and they were organized defensively. They made good decisions and they caused us some problems offensively as well.”
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Ultimately, and not surprisingly given Duke’s season narrative, the Blue Devil defense remained imperious and recorded yet another shutout against Howard’s offensive threat. Sophomore goalkeeper JT Harms recorded his second clean sheet in a row as Duke continued to cement itself as one of the NCAA’s tightest defenses.
“I think the team has just grown over time,” Ulfarsson said. “We're getting better and better at the best time of the year.”
“I think we're getting to know each other even more now and I think players are now coming into form,” added Kerr. “I feel that we're moving forward in the right direction.”
Duke’s win against Howard was yet another example of what this team offers that is so terrifying. The goalscoring exploits of Ulfarsson, the creativity of the midfield and the rigidity of the defense make it look like the Blue Devils have a secret sauce for success. It has a goal differential of +11, still has only conceded one and has multiple shutout wins against ranked opponents.
Of course, there’s still lots of season left and many more tests to come, but the Blue Devils are rolling and as every week passes they are getting harder and harder to stop.
If Duke is indeed hitting form, it couldn’t be at a more opportune time. The Blue Devils’ next test is Friday at home against No. 14 Louisville, followed by an intensive October schedule with seven games in four weeks.