No. 18 Duke tied No. 20 Notre Dame 1-1 after two overtimes last Friday, and it has one more regular season game against Virginia before the start of the ACC tournament and maybe even an NCAA tournament berth.
But these games aren’t the point.
Anything else that happens this season is free money; the purpose of this year has already been served.
Coming into this campaign, the expectations were simple—just be better than last year. While they were better than their 4-10-3 record would imply, the Blue Devils were an almost-there team, one that couldn’t quite finish. Getting over that hump, be it finishing games, finishing goals or finishing battles, was all that was expected of this year’s team.
And they have delivered on that. They have delivered on that exceedingly well.
After grabbing their third win and third shutout in a row against Michigan earlier this season, head coach John Kerr reflected on the previous season. "We learned a lot about ourselves…and we were frustrated with the results.... We went through a lot of growing pains...and we had a lot of motivation to get off to a good start.”
In fact, Duke ended up getting its best season start in almost 20 years, going 9-1 through their first 10 games, including seven shutouts. It was a Cinderella run on the heels of near-possessed play from senior goalie Eliot Hamill, the unstoppable force of sophomore striker Thorleifur Ulfarsson and a significant amount of goodwill from the soccer gods.
Since then, the Blue Devils have come back to Earth, dropping two hard fought games to No. 12 Pitt and No. 15 Clemson, narrowly beat a Furman team they were expected to beat handily and tying No. 11 Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the individual players have settled into a rhythm in the absence of high-flying team theatrics, with Hamill regressing to simply the ACC’s save-percentage leader and Ulfarsson going from an apparent lock for multi-goal games to simply the ACC’s goals-per-game leader.
It’s clear, even as the magic of the early season finally wears off, that Duke has the makings of an elite team, and it could even make some noise in the postseason this year. However, if any year is the Blue Devils' year, it’s not this one. It’s next year.
Though its game against Notre Dame didn’t have the worst possible outcome, it did expose that this miracle turnaround team is still rough around the edges.
After all was said and done Friday, Kerr said, “We're disappointed not to get the win, but, in some ways, happy to not lose because it was a tough game and they're a good team, so we held strong.”
Truthfully, Duke came out with a tie by the skin of its teeth, as the Fighting Irish had the Blue Devils in their own end for much of the game. When all was said and done, shots were about even, with Duke tallying seven to Notre Dame’s 11, while recording three and five shots on goal, respectively. The two each got ample opportunities in the box and struggled to convert, however, the Blue Devils lost the battle in the midfield.
As a result, Duke had to rely on man-to-man defense in the box, and while that is a great strength of the team, it is not something you want to be doing as often as the Blue Devils were forced to. And even with their defensive strength in the face of a hungry bunch of Fighting Irish, mistakes slipped in, leading to moments where it was almost certain Notre Dame would score a goal, like a string of shots in the second half that went wide or were narrowly saved.
Still, the hallmarks of the Blue Devils’ game this year were there, as they have been in their earlier losses against Pittsburgh and Clemson. If you’ve read any of my articles about the team this year, this next part will be familiar, if not redundant, but their press was aggressive, their defense was really solid and Hamill bailed them out of some sticky situations. However, against Notre Dame and in their earlier losses, Duke’s well-oiled soccer machine exposed its youth in high-pressure situations, leading to the mistakes that plagued the game.
Given the purpose of this season, though, it’s hard to actually scorn these apparent shortcomings. It’s hard to scorn freshman Shakur Mohammed for a few overzealous turnovers when he’s fast on track to becoming one of the best playmakers in the ACC, as he’s already sixth in the conference in assists. Similarly, it’s hard to scorn rare defensive breakdowns when the backline is three-quarters underclassmen and has stood its ground against some of the best offenses in the country.
With one game on the horizon, the worst possible outcome of this regular season is a 10-4-1 record. Regardless of what happens in the postseason, that is such sufficient progress from last year’s underwhelming finish that I’d argue that the exposure of some Blue Devil weaknesses in these past few games is actually a positive symbol of hope, because it means that this young Duke team hasn’t reached its full potential yet.
Underclassmen have accounted for 94% of Duke’s points this season, and of the five captains, four are sophomores. The Blue Devils are an unusually young team, and there is every reason to expect that as this team grows and jells even more, whatever it accomplishes this season, it can match and surpass in the next.
Hamill has a fifth year of eligibility, and, with only a year and half of starter experience under his belt, he should have every reason to use it. Mohammed and Ulfarsson, who combined for Duke’s only goal against Notre Dame, have developed into quite the offensive duo, coming up with big goals and starting to feed off each other. Sophomore Peter Stroud continues to be a menace in the midfield, and he only seems to get faster and craftier with every game. The backline will only solidify as its talented, young members like sophomores Lewis McGarvey, Antino Lopez and Amir Daley, as well as freshman Ruben Mesalles, gain more experience and learn how to handle the weapons good teams can throw at them. There’s a myriad of other young guns I could mention, from sophomore Nick Pariano to freshman Jai Bean, but the point is that all of them have higher ceilings.
So, it’s easy to look at the Blue Devils’ stand-out year and think that the time is now, but really we’ve just seen the beginning. Whatever comes next against Virginia and in the postseason should be fun, but there is even more exciting soccer beyond this season’s horizon.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.