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'Fight back': Duke men's soccer battles but drops first ACC game to Pittsburgh

Sophomore Thorleifur Ulfarsson notched two points in the loss to the Panthers.
Sophomore Thorleifur Ulfarsson notched two points in the loss to the Panthers.

Not every story has a happy ending, but every story worth telling has a lesson. 

The same can be said for sports. Though Duke ultimately fell 3-2 to the Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils are looking at their battle not as a defeat but as an opportunity for growth. 

Third-ranked Duke is off to its best start since 2004, but the Blue Devils hit a road bump as they travelled to Ambrose Urbanic Field Saturday where they were sent home with their first ACC loss of the season, the last team in the conference to do so. The Blue Devils now share the top spot in the ACC Coastal with No. 13 Pittsburgh, the very team that bested them. But, far from feeling defeated, Duke is happy with the game it brought to the table. 

“Clearly Pitt is a top, top team and I was surprised it didn't win the national championship last year. They’re certainly going to be contenders this year…We still performed quite well for a young team...so [I’m] really happy with the players’ fight back and willingness to hang in there in difficult circumstances,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. 

The Panthers (8-3, 4-1) nearly swept last year’s ACC season honors, winning Offensive Player, Defensive Player, Freshman and Coach of the Year, and narrowly missed out on the 2020 College Cup Finals, so the Blue Devils (9-2, 4-1 in the ACC) were well aware of the challenge they would face in the Steel City. However, anticipating a threat and actually playing it are two different things, and perhaps Duke was caught off guard by the sheer force of nature that is Panther soccer.

Taking a more conservative approach and using a tighter formation than in previous games, Duke attempted to counter Pittsburgh’s very talented offense tactically from the get-go. However, the Panthers were still able to control the first half of the game, outshooting the Blue Devils 13-3 and possessing the ball for 69% of the time. Though ACC goals leader Thorleifur Ulfarsson grabbed the first goal of the game for Duke 22 minutes in, the Panthers tied it up in the 40th minute, and, frankly, it was only their first goal because of the exemplary play of Blue Devil goalie—and, as of Oct. 7, the nation’s save percentage leader—Eliot Hamill, who made six saves in the first half. 

The second half was a different story, however, as Duke played with a style much more emblematic of its play throughout the rest of the season, pressing aggressively and moving the ball quickly. While the Panthers outscored the Blue Devils 2-1 in the second half, it’s hard to take issue with the way Duke played in the second frame, as it outshot Pittsburgh 9-4 and forced it to give up seven corner kicks to four. 

“We had to change our tactics a little bit and go for it, meaning send a number forward [and] take a little bit more risk in the back end. And I thought we had some good moments and created some really good looks in front of the goal on several occasions and [were] unlucky not to get an equaliser,” Kerr said. 

The Panthers were able to capitalize on two very good opportunities, but most of the opportunities in the second half were ones Pittsburgh was defending, and, while the hope for a Duke victory had mostly dimmed to an ember by the time it scored its second of the night, the Blue Devils’ pressure finally paid off. A goal for sophomore midfielder Peter Stroud, assisted by Ulfarsson, gave Duke a healthy dose of optimism for not just the rest of the season but for the years ahead. 

Despite the team’s stellar season so far, the Blue Devils, in many ways, are still finding their identity as a team and learning what they are capable of. Nine of Duke’s starting lineup Saturday were underclassmen, and the story of the season so far has been the development of these young players from talented individuals into a cohesive unit. The ability of the Blue Devils, then, to figure out one of the best programs in the country, then take it to them in the second half inspires confidence that, regardless of the outcome of this season, Duke will be able to carry their success into future seasons as the team develops even more. 

Key to that development will be difficult games like this one. Kerr said, “[This] leads me to be excited about the future, because we're going to learn a lot of lessons from this matchand continue to grow as a team. Every game in the ACC is a difficult game, and we were the last team to be defeated.” 

However, Duke’s eyes aren’t pointed years in the future quite yet, as another ranked matchup with No. 21 and ACC Atlantic top dog Clemson is just around the corner. And even though the race to the top of the conference just got a little tighter, the Blue Devils’ goal still remains getting a bye in the first round of the ACC Tournament. There’s a lot of soccer left to be played this season, and Duke is committed to rebounding from this loss and finishing the year strong. 

Kerr said, “These guys want to play for each other. They want to play for the school, and they want to play for the program, and most of all they want to play for each other. Everyone's working hard every day to get better and we have a lot of fun while we're doing it, so… this is a little bit of a hiccup but a worthwhile growth opportunity.”

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