CARY, N.C.—Much as Commodus was the foil to Maximus in "Gladiator," so was Notre Dame to Duke on Sunday afternoon.
It was the Fighting Irish who came out on top 2-0 in the ACC Championship game at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., breaking the hearts of the Blue Devil faithful. On another day, Duke’s performance likely would’ve seen the ACC trophy make the 22 mile trip back to Chapel Drive, but chances and admirable defending weren’t enough to repel Notre Dame.
By all accounts, it’s been a historic season for head coach John Kerr and his Blue Devils. Goal after goal from Icelandic phenom Thorleifur Ulfarsson, midfield masterclass after midfield masterclass from sophomore Peter Stroud and shutout after shutout from senior Eliot Hamill led to Duke’s first regular-season ACC title since 2006 and a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, culminating in Sunday’s final against No. 5 Notre Dame and a chance at even more history.
But the cards just didn’t fall the way of Kerr’s Blue Devils.
To their credit, the Fighting Irish were excellent on the day. Their tight defensive shape and ruthless counterattacking play proved a tough foil to Duke’s pass-oriented attacking strategy. ACC Offensive Player of the Year Ulfarsson was starved of service and the creative impetus of Stroud and Shakur Mohammed wasn’t enough to break down Notre Dame’s resolute defensive unit, even if the Blue Devils held the ball and looked far more threatening than the Fighting Irish in the second half. Duke has thrived this season on expansiveness in passing, and Notre Dame shut these lanes down hard.
“They're organized, they're huge,” said Kerr. “They take up a lot of space, they're sharp into the tackle and chasing the game for five minutes didn't help.”
From the outset, the Fighting Irish suffocated the Blue Devil attack and forced it into a frustrating reliance on long-balls from deep that were often intercepted before they made their way to Ulfarsson or Mohammed. Not only did this reduce Duke’s offensive threat but also created a threat of Notre Dame’s own that paid dividends with graduate student Dawson McCartney’s game-winning brace.
“You know, today, we didn't do badly, we just went up against a team that had a timely goal early on,” said Kerr. “It was kind of an even game in the first half and then we stepped it up in terms of our pressure. I thought we were the better team in the second half, [but] the circumstances are when you're chasing the game, you expose yourself and they score goals.”
In the second half, Duke by far looked the more threatening side. Having chased the game since the fifth minute, the Blue Devils left the tunnel hungry for a goal of their own and had plenty of chances to snatch one, such as Ulfarsson’s wide blast in the 64th-minute or freshman Jai Bean’s 73rd-minute backheel flick that edged just beyond the far post. Instead of an equalizer, though, Duke found itself 2-0 down after 77 minutes and with a mountain to climb to level the scores.
One bright spot for the Blue Devils in spite of the disappointing result was the outstanding defensive clinic put on by senior Ian Murphy, whose clearing headers proved crucial in repelling dangerous Notre Dame counter-attacks.
“He's had a great tournament,” said Kerr. “You know, we needed him to step up because he and Lewis are the cornerstone[s] of our backline and they've had a great season together. They've worked really well together.”
As is often the case in soccer, the scoreline did the game injustice. It was much closer and much more end-to-end than the 2-0 count implies. Duke could’ve, and should’ve, scored a couple and will be disappointed with its inability to do so. One could argue, especially in the second half, that the Blue Devils were the better side and deserved more. Sports is a cruel animal though, and what you deserve is rarely what you actually get.
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Notre Dame found the formula to shutting Duke down on Sunday just as it did in the teams’ 1-1 draw earlier this fall. It stifled the offense and broke past the defense when it mattered and ultimately wound up ACC Champions because of it.
“I think having this experience is only going to help you,” said Kerr. “Even though it hurts, it's going to sharpen our minds and [help us] understand a little bit more what we need to do as we head into the NCAA tournament.”
If next week’s NCAA tournament is the imposing Roman Colosseum, Duke enters as the fallen hero Maximus looking for its redemption against its foil Commodus; amid an onslaught of challengers it must stand firm against if it hopes to make further history. It has the talent to do so—now is just a matter of making that count.