The Orange put up a formidable fight, but it was all blue Saturday night as Duke toppled its third ACC foe in a row and posted yet another clean sheet.
Defeating Syracuse 1-0 at SU Soccer Stadium, the sixth-ranked Blue Devils kept their perfect conference record intact while proving to themselves their own resiliency and versatility. After last week’s high-flying, high-energy 3-0 win against North Carolina, the Orange proved to be a different beast, with the game staying tied at zero until the 81st minute when Duke finally broke through Syracuse’s near impenetrable defense.
“Oh, that was a tough game. It's never easy going up to Syracuse….They're a tough team to play against, and they're very physical….They want to get back into the standings and beat a top-10 team and they made it really difficult,” head coach John Kerr said after the game.
The goal was one of the rare shots on goal that the Orange allowed, and it came after sophomore midfielder Peter Stroud intercepted a pass near the centerline and tapped it out to freshman midfielder Shakur Mohammed. Mohammed, who has been a significant driver of offense all season, carried the ball to just outside the box where he slid it back to Stroud, who immediately shot off a cross. Sophomore forward Thorleifur Ulfarsson, who was running full throttle toward the net, was in the perfect position and popped the ball past Orange goalkeeper Lucas Daunhauer.
Ulfarsson’s goal, his second of the year after missing the first four games of the season, was the result of finding and creating space in the midfield, something hard to come by. Syracuse runs a formation with only three backline defenders, with the rest of the defensive load being shouldered by five midfielders. Duke (6-1, 3-0 in the ACC) on the other hand heavily relies on its four defenders on the backline and uses its four midfielders more offensively. This meant a very crowded midfield, and any spark from the Blue Devils could be easily snuffed out, while the Orange could more easily get to the box but couldn’t break through Duke’s defenders.
For the Blue Devils, this meant an uphill battle all game. Syracuse (4-4-1, 1-2) jumped out from the get-go with energy and determination, getting a few early shots on goal, but the game quickly settled into a tug-o’-war of possession with each team fighting to capitalize on opportunities few and far between. To combat this, when the Blue Devils did get an offensive push, they wouldn’t fall back after temporary turnovers, instead grinding to regain possession while still in Syracuse’s half. Kerr credits Duke’s depth with giving the team the ability to keep the pressure on, as it allowed them to rotate in fresh legs, especially in the second half, to try and beat the Orange with speed.
“We did a good job with substitutions, in terms of keeping guys fresh, because I knew the second half was going to open up again…[so we] had some ability to slip into another gear.... It's a good thing that we have a lot of depth in the team…[because] everybody has a big part to play,” Kerr said.
While Duke was ultimately the only team to get on the board, Syracuse at times certainly made it feel like the Blue Devils would finally give up another goal after only letting in one this season so far (the fewest goals against in the NCAA, tied with San Diego State). Duke’s backline for the most part did an admirable job of shutting down dangerous opportunities, and goalkeeper Eliot Hamill was there to stop anything the Blue Devils didn’t, but sometimes Syracuse snuck through.
One such time, at the final minute mark when Duke was simply trying to protect its lead, saw one of the Orange nearly get a wide open shot before it was kicked away at the last minute, only for Syracuse midfielder Jeorgio Kocevski to be awarded a free kick after Mohammed was assessed a yellow card.
“We got away with a couple of moments of madness…. It's nerve racking, I can tell you that. As it goes, I feel like I've kicked and headed every single ball out there, and I'm exhausted,” Kerr joked.
However, ultimately being able to pull out a win, especially against a different style of play than Duke has seen before, has the team relaxed but focused going into the rest of the season. Having proved to themselves what they’re capable of, the Blue Devils have their sights set on the future.
“You know, you feel good that you've participated in a big time ACC game and continued our unbeaten streak so far, moving up the standings. That's our goal: to gain an opportunity to get a bye in the first round of the ACC [championship] and play at home.”
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The Blue Devils take on Howard next at home Tuesday.