Duke sailed into uncharted waters Tuesday evening.
Just under 16 minutes into the game, the Blue Devils were staring at their first in-game deficit of the season, going down by one on an opportune goal off Elon’s first shot of the game, and how they responded could set the tone for the rest of the season.
Letting in a goal after firmly controlling every aspect of the game could have demoralized them, but like Odysseus facing Charybdis and Scylla in the fabled waters of Ancient Greece, Duke followed its game plan and persevered, ultimately defeating the Phoenix 3-1 in Durham at Koskinen Stadium.
“We had to regroup a little bit. It kind of shocked us that they scored quite so easily…[but] I thought we reacted well," head coach John Kerr said after the game. "We got on the front foot and used the ball even quicker than we were in the first 15 minutes."
The third-ranked Blue Devils (9-1-0) only had to wait 10 minutes to prove they could come back from adversity. After keeping the pressure on and the ball in Elon’s half for nearly the entire time, Duke finally got a chance via a cornerkick. Sophomore midfielder Nick Pariano nailed the service and sophomore defender Lewis McGarvey emerged from the net-front chaos to bump the ball in with his chest.
After that, the momentum never slowed for the team in blue, and no one took advantage of it better than Pariano. By the end of the night he had collected a goal and two assists, leading Duke in points. The snipe specialist—he is usually the one to take corner and penalty kicks—got a golden scoring opportunity after Elon (5-5-1) was penalized for a handball in the box. With just the goalie between him and the back of the net, Pariano tricked the keeper and buried it low right. While penalty kicks like that aren’t typically the way teams score, goals are goals and going up one let the team breathe a little easier throughout the night.
Pariano, a member of last year’s All-ACC Freshman team, still had to show off his accuracy one more time, though. This time, it came late in the second half to seal the deal for the Blue Devils. After collecting a pass from senior defender Ian Murphy, Pariano carried the ball up the field and kicked a long, arcing but perfectly placed pass right to the head of none other than sophomore striker Thorleifur Ulfarsson who tapped it to the left of the goalie for his sixth goal in three games.
Ulfarsson’s goal signed, sealed and delivered the best week of his Duke career. After scoring a hat trick against Howard and two goals against Louisville, the Iceland native was named the TopDrawerSoccer National Player of the Week, College Soccer News National Player of the Week and ACC Offensive Player of the Week. On Wednesday, he completed his sweep of weekly honors by being named the United Soccer Coaches National Player of the Week. Who knows if his goal late on Tuesday factored into his selection, but it did bring his goal total to eight in just six games, which would place him squarely at the top of the goals per game standings with 1.33 if he played enough games to qualify. He simply has a knack for finding the right places at the right times and capitalizing on it, and this game and week demonstrated that vision to a tee.
“He's coming into a nice groove and just getting used to everybody in the offensive end in terms of how they play and what kind of service he's getting," Kerr said. "His timing is becoming even sharper...He could see [his goal] early, and he could see it was happening as the ball was coming across that it was going to be in the back of the net."
It’s clear at this point in the season that Duke has some dangerous offensive weapons, but luck has been on the Blue Devils' side this season and Tuesday it wasn’t. While Duke decimated the Phoenix with 20 shots to a mere four, too many fell directly into the goalkeeper's arms or glided past the frame into the parking lot behind the field, and Ulfarsson’s late goal was the only "normal" goal they scored. Before they take on No. 13 Pittsburgh, which is perennially one of the best teams in the ACC, this weekend, the Blue Devils need to shake off that slump.
“We had some other opportunities where we’re just a whisker away [from] getting on the end of it or getting the right pass, and it's typical of this time of the year when you're having to play three games in a week, and you're not going to be as sharp after such a tough game against Louisville on the weekend, so...we know that we have to regroup and heal up,” Kerr said.
Defensively, Duke will look to rest and recenter as well. While Elon did not give the Blue Devils much to do in their own end, there were some nail-biting moments that slipped through that they know won’t fly against better teams. Still, while the shutout spell seems to have lifted for now, the Phoenix's goal was only Duke’s third given up in 10 games, and the Blue Devils still sit atop the NCAA goals against average rankings.
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While Tuesday’s game was both a test of Duke’s resiliency and a decisive demonstration of its ability as a team, going down early gave the seemingly unsinkable team a dose of a reality, and that is a good thing, as it just reinforced their pertinacity.
With yet another win in the books and wind in their sails, the Blue Devils know that staying their course and playing their game will pay off even in the face of adversity and even with arguably their toughest matchup of the season on the horizon. Now, with a proven gameplan and a battle-tested roster, all that’s left for the Blue Devils to do in the final stretch of the season is stay confident and vigilant.
Kerr emphasized, “We have to regroup and get ourselves ready mentally and physically for the game against the great Pitt team who set the standard last year.”