We are three games into the Duke men’s soccer season, and the team has yet to give up a goal.
After a frustrating 4-10-3 season last year, things could not be going more right for the Blue Devils, as they notched their third-straight win against Michigan Thursday night on the road. While the last two games likely had a more dazzling finish, the 1-0 triumph against the Wolverines, who finished last season ranked third in the Big Ten, proved to the team what they are capable of this season.
“I’ll tell you what. It was a really tough college soccer game,” head coach John Kerr said. “To be able to grind out a result was something that we couldn’t really do last year, so to go away from home and beat a really talented team in the Big Ten, it was a turning point for us in terms of understanding how good we could be.”
And a grind it was. Not in the sense that Duke (3-0-0) didn’t get opportunities, but in the physical battles that ultimately decided the game. A total of 26 fouls and four yellow cards were handed out over the entire ninety minutes, not including a pushing scuffle in the first half. Legal tackles and one-on-one battles ultimately gave the Blue Devils, who broke into the United Soccer Coaches Poll this week at No. 24, the edge as they were able to out-skill and out-work their opponent on a micro scale.
Most of Duke’s opportunities came from these little battles along the edges of the field and around the box, where they were able to break free of the Wolverines (1-1-1) and make an offensive push. The lone goal of the game, which came in the early second half, was no different. Receiving the ball from a throw-in, senior midfielder Conor Kelly was able to maintain possession in the midst of three Michigan defenders just inside the penalty box and shoot off a cross pass where freshman Ruben Mesalles launched a header.
Mesalles has been impressive in his rookie season. Though this was his first goal of the year, he scored two against UNC-Wilmington in preseason, grabbed an assist in the season opener against Liberty and is averaging 80 minutes a game, so all signs point to this being just the start of his first act.
“This guy Ruben Mesalles just keeps improving by the minute, and his maturity as a freshman to come in and contribute so much right away is phenomenal. He scored a wonderful header and a great build up. It was, from a coach's perspective, fantastic to see,” Kerr said.
Mesalles’ performance, however, is one of many great shows put on by a young core. This year’s leadership corp includes four sophomore captains—with the only senior captain being Eliot Hamill, who notched two saves on seven shots faced. The young group maturing from talented, yet unpolished players to responsible leaders on the field is a large part of why Duke has had such a different result than last year, when it went 1-2-0 through the first three games.
Kerr points to resiliency as the biggest improvement over the offseason, and perhaps that stems from such a young team gaining experience and learning how to maintain energy and persevere through a full ninety minutes, even if it’s a scoreless slog. It sure looked like that was the case, as the Blue Devils kept up the pressure, getting plenty of shots—twelve, to be exact, and six on goal—on the back of smart passing and good footwork in the final third.
While the game was not all sunshine and rainbows—there were a few close calls in front of Duke’s net and Michigan was able to gain too much ground in the middle of the field—the Blue Devils went home confident in their team and their future prospects. However, they’re not taking this win, or the other two for that matter, for granted.
“We’re not looking past our game on Monday, when we host Seattle who’s a very good team...” Kerr said. “This team has to dig deep and take one game at a time and make sure that we're prepared.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.