Once again, it’s Chapel Drive versus Chapel Hill.
The ACC men’s soccer season plays host to another spectacle at 7:00 P.M. this Sunday, Sept. 19, as the 12th ranked Blue Devils (4-1-0) visit the 16th ranked Tar Heels (4-1-1) at Dorrance Field. In conference play, Duke comes off the back of a 1-0 win against No. 17 Virginia Tech (No. 6 at the time), while North Carolina hopes to improve on a 4-0 loss to No. 5 Pittsburgh.
The term “derby” really isn’t far off in describing a game that will no doubt be contentious. Not only are the institutions merely 10 miles apart, but this year, both are serious challengers for conference and national titles. North Carolina, a historic heavyweight, is looking as dangerous as ever, while Duke is hoping to upset the apple cart and show the traditional big boys that a new, pitchfork-wielding kid is in town.
Duke-North Carolina games are usually hard-fought affairs and Sunday should be no different as the Blue Devils’ rock-solid defense faces yet another test in the Tar Heels’ potent attack. Duke has conceded but one goal in five games (that goal coming in double overtime, no less) while North Carolina has averaged 2.5 goals per game, having notched 15 goals in their last six outings.
“We're very aware of their power and they have a lot of depth,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “We have to worry about them ... we're very aware of their weapons and how they can hurt you.”
The Tar Heels have mustered an impressive 130 shots this season and as of Sept. 16, lead the NCAA in total shots attempted. The Blue Devils sit eighth with 94.
“I think the tactical battle will be very interesting to see [and] how offensive minded they're going to be at home,” Kerr said. “We have to be aware if they're going to be sending numbers forward, if they're going to press early, if they're going to be looking for the counter attack. We're gonna have to assess that early in the game and adjust our tactics accordingly.”
While much of Duke’s narrative this year has been centered around its defensive rigidity, North Carolina has also boasted an impressive defense, only conceding in a 4-0 loss to Pittsburgh before holding a clean sheet in last week’s 1-0 win against Campbell.
“They're a tough team to beat,” Kerr said. “They're difficult to break down. They're very organized. We're gonna have to be at our best.”
Duke, however, should go into this game with confidence even if they’ll be facing a very disciplined, talented Tar Heel squad. Difficulty hasn’t deterred this young, determined Blue Devil team as hard-fought victories against Michigan and Virginia Tech earlier this season have shown.
“We have the X-factor this year to put us over the finish line in games, which we were missing last year,” star sophomore Peter Stroud said. “In crucial moments we'd end up on the worse side. This year, we have that effect that pushes [us] over in those moments.”
Last year, Duke fell 2-0 in a pair of losses to North Carolina. If the Blue Devils wish to change that this year, they must make the most of that X-factor. They must be ready and eager to defend against a barrage of shots and tireless and clinical in front of goal to break down the Tar Heels’ miserly back line.
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When asked about what a win in Chapel Hill would mean for Duke’s season, Kerr marked it as “another step forward.”
“We're taking every game day by day and not looking too far ahead. It's a tough team and we're going to be up for it,” he said. “It's a really good test early in the ACC season to see where they are and to see where we are.”
For Duke, a victory would mark consecutive triumphs over established ACC heavyweights, while, for North Carolina, a win would be the perfect way to bounce back from the Pittsburgh loss and re-establish their status among the conference’s elite. Regardless, Sunday promises to be an enthralling affair with season records, bragging rights, and regional dominance all at stake.
“There's nothing like a Duke-Carolina game in anything," Kerr said. “Everyone's going to be up for it. No question about that.”