This was a big win.
No. 19 Duke got conference play off to a fantastic start with its 1-0 victory against No. 6 Virginia Tech on Saturday night. Koskinen Stadium saw an end-to-end, thrilling match, with Thorleifur Ulfarsson’s first-half penalty ultimately deciding the difference in the hard-fought affair.
After a collision with a static Virginia Tech defender in the 35th minute and raucous calls from the Blue Devil faithful, the referee pointed to the spot. The Icelandic forward stepped up, took a few breaths and buried the shot powerfully and confidently into the middle of the goal, sending Virginia Tech’s goalkeeper Ben Martino the wrong way. With roughly 10 minutes left in the first half, Duke had a lead—an important lead—against quality opposition. From there on out, the impetus was on Virginia Tech to equalize and on Duke to hold the result.
It’s been well documented how solid Duke has been defensively this season, only conceding one goal in five games, and this was no exception.
“In years past, we would have given up a goal in a game like this,” head coach John Kerr said after the full-time whistle. “They put us under a lot of pressure and they created some excellent chances.”
Senior goalkeeper Eliot Hamill’s point-blank save to deny an almost-certain Virginia Tech goal in the 30th minute and Duke’s tooth-and-nail defending to close out the game were two examples of an all-around excellent team display. Freshman Ruben Mesalles’s tireless tormenting on the wing and sophomore Peter Stroud’s tenacious midfield masterclass helped underscore the defensive rigidity that characterized this game and has characterized Duke’s season.
While the defense, once again, was excellent, there was also lots for Blue Devil fans to be hopeful about going forward. The attack was fluid and the midfield was industrious, with Ulfarsson and Stroud shining in particular. A series of second-half counterattacks seriously tested Virginia Tech’s defense and on a different day would have cushioned the scoreline further.
Though chances and shots (19 for Duke, 11 for Virginia Tech) were plenty for both the Blue Devils (4-1-0, 1-0-0 in the ACC) and Hokies (2-1-2, 0-1-0) the lack of a clinical attacking edge was concerning. Virginia Tech had one notable chance in the first half that thundered off the left post and another in the second when sophomore midfielder Nick Blacklock headed narrowly wide.
Duke, similarly, had chances to put the game away but failed to increase its lead. Ulfarsson’s relatively unguarded shot off a beautiful through-ball from Stroud in the 77th minute was comfortably saved by Virginia Tech and would’ve left fans with a sour taste in their mouths if the Hokies’ late-game onslaught paid dividends.
Hypothetical thinking like this was ultimately futile given Duke’s defensive discipline, but the Blue Devils will need to be more clinical in front of goal if they want to confidently beat talented teams like Virginia Tech in the future.
When asked about takeaways from the night’s game, Ulfarsson emphasized the need “to be sharper in the final third,” a telling statement given his contribution as the game’s lone goalscorer.
“We could have scored three or four,” added Kerr. “We didn't do a good enough job capitalizing on some good movements and some good opportunities.”
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With a strong defensive backbone and a tenacious midfield, the Blue Devils are a force to watch and a ruthless clinical edge will only add to their fear factor.
Regardless, Friday’s win is monumental in realizing the team’s goals for the season. A 1-0 win against top-six opposition in the Hokies is a statement and puts Duke in pole position to cement themselves as true competitors in a heavyweight conference come further tests this fall.
As of Friday’s kickoff, six ACC teams found themselves in the national top 25. Including Virginia Tech, four placed higher than the Blue Devils. Duke never appeared deterred by the numbers, however, and played with confidence and self-belief. Kerr’s postgame confidence said it all: “we were the better team.”
“I'm pleased for the players that have been working really, really hard,” Kerr said. “They deserve it tonight.”
If the post-game team spirit is any indication, this team is ready and eager for greener pastures. As Ulfarsson confidently asserted, “[the team] is feeling great.”
Blue Devil fans will hope Friday’s game was a result to build on and will provide good momentum leading into a titanic clash with No. 4 North Carolina. As is the case with most things, though, only time will tell if this young Duke team is ready to keep pushing onward and upward.