The Devil works hard, but the Blue Devils work harder.
After UCLA grabbed an early one-goal lead, seventh-seeded Duke men’s soccer clawed its way back, ultimately besting UCLA 2-1 in the second round of the NCAA tournament in front of an impassioned Sunday crowd at Koskinen Stadium. Ultimately outshooting the Bruins 28-6, the Blue Devils gave it everything they had and it paid off.
"I was praying baby. I was praying down the stretch to be honest with you. And I just kept believing and I just kept in the game. You just have to play it to the very end and [I'm] glad our guys kept at it," head coach John Kerr said after the game.
With the memory of Notre Dame’s early go-ahead goal from the ACC championship fresh in their minds, the Blue Devils jumped out early and pushed the pace of the game in order to flip the script. It seemed to work at first, as they played most of the first ten minutes in the final third and were teetering on the edge of a goal. After UCLA midfielder Yoni Sorokin was assessed a yellow card in the seventh minute and Duke received a freekick just outside the top right corner of the box, the Blue Devils were clearly poised to strike, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before they would open up the scoring.
However, an aggressive press opens you up to the counterattack, and the Bruins bided their time until an opportunity presented itself. Making quick work of a rare opening, UCLA pushed into Duke’s box and scored the first goal of the day, and the Blue Devils would have to chase the game once again.
"It looked like Notre Dame [in] the second half completely," Kerr recalled. "I thought our response to them scoring was good, and we missed some pretty good opportunities. On another day, we score two or three of those."
Through over 86 minutes of a dominating chase, hope that Duke would pull out a win started to dwindle, but then, with roughly 3:30 left on the clock, a service into the box from sophomore midfielder Nick Pariano brought the Blue Devils within striking distance. With an open look, freshman Ruben Mesalles misfired and sent a weak shot right at the Bruin goaltender Nate Crockford. The goalie couldn't contain the rebound, but Blue Devil sophomore defender Lewis McGarvey could, settling the ball enough for Mesalles to get a second chance, this time with no one between him and the netting. The crowd erupted and senior Conor Kelly dragged Mesalles into his arms to celebrate the season’s redemption.
Just 39 seconds later, sophomore midfielder Peter Stroud corralled a pass from Pariano and launched a long shot from outside the box. Barely skimming off the top of a Bruin’s head, the ball deflected just out of the reach of Crockford, and the game was sealed.
The goals were a relief to Kerr on the sidelines. He said, "It was a long wait. Luckily, I'm patient, but I felt like I lost a few hairs tonight. And I've turned gray for sure."
It was a long road to the final buzzer, though, and the final winning score was the Blue Devils’ reward for one of their hardest fought games of the season.
After UCLA’s opening goal, chaos broke loose late in the first half. Duke got the gift of 56 minutes of a man advantage after Sorokin received his second yellow card and a subsequent red card. Bruins head coach Ryan Jorden evidently was unhappy with the call, though, and made enough noise about it to the referee to be handed a yellow card as well. Meanwhile, Duke sophomore forward Thorleifur Ulfarsson started getting chippy with a UCLA player and had to be held back by other Blue Devils. With nearly an hour left on the clock, it was clear the game would be nothing if not entertaining.
That chaos fueled the Blue Devils, and the second half was all Duke, with the energy the Blue Devils started with doubling at the start of the final frame. In the first fifteen minutes of the half alone, Duke registered five shots and had enough near goals that the stands of Koskinen were rumbling with anticipation. One shot from Ulfarsson that bounced down off the crossbar even had to be reviewed.
Still, Duke was struggling to convert on its abundance of opportunities, and as the minutes ticked away, the Blue Devils became more desperate to score a goal and save their season. With Duke throwing everything they had at the net, UCLA was forced to play the defensive game of a lifetime, barely ever crossing the centerline. Nothing was hitting for Duke, though, and slowly it seemed like it was losing hope. Cue the heroics from Mesalles and Stroud, and the rest is history.
After Stroud’s game-winning goal, though, UCLA’s Pietro Grassi took issue with Ulfarsson apparently talking to the Bruins’ goalie and pushed him over from behind, getting himself an immediate red card. Obviously an emotional game, especially for the Bruins as they stared down the final minutes of their season, the energy boiled over. For a while, the clock had to be stopped as players from both sides pushed at each other and refs and team captains stepped between to cool the tension.
"It's part of the sport, and people are competitive. That's why you play, because if you're just straightforward and and you don't have any emotion, you're not going to get very far," Kerr said of the game's frenzied nature.
The crowd, equally as riled up as the players, didn’t sit for the rest of the game and applauded Ulfarsson as he walked off the field after junior Scotty Taylor subbed in for the final minutes. The last seconds left in the game slipped away, even as the Bruins desperately tried to overcome a two-man disadvantage to get an equalizer, and the cheers of Koskinen Stadium were probably heard around the whole city of Durham.
Still, the Blue Devils aren’t taking this win for granted, as the next round is just a week away. Though it doesn’t yet know who it will face, Duke can carry forward this exhilarating game and the lessons it learned from it.
Kerr said, "You never know, in this in this game and in the tournament, what's going to happen and, and we have to be ready for at all."
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.