When the season kicked off in February, all signs pointed to another title-contending year for head coach John Danowski and his Duke team.
Despite graduating all-star talents like Michael Sowers in attack and J.T. Giles-Harris in defense, the Blue Devils returned the vast majority of their roster. This included an extra year of eligibility for overtime hero Joe Robertson and goalkeeping sensation Mike Adler, and additional talents in 2021’s top recruit Andrew McAdorey and Penn transfer attackman Sean Lulley. For a team criticized for lacking cohesion, locking down its pre-existing players and supplementing them with experience and freshman seemed a sensible strategy.
Early games indicated as much. Dyson Williams and Brennan O’Neill scored goals for fun, Adler was almost impenetrable in net and, in spite of a new look, the defense seemed to be finding its footing.
First it was Jacksonville, then it was Penn, then it was Loyola and most recently it was Syracuse. One by one and week by week, various parts of the team began to falter and the group billed to withstand the onslaught of a stacked ACC and push for a fourth national title has seen its identity comprehensively shaken.
Defeats to Jacksonville and Penn, while not desirable, were at least acceptable in an early season context. Losing early can even be a good thing since it exposes weaknesses and removes the pressure to stay undefeated, but after a slew of unconvincing games thereafter, any silver lining started to erode.
Duke (8-4, 0-1 in the ACC) squeaked past High Point, edged a slog against Richmond and overcame a 4-2 halftime deficit against Towson in Washington, D.C., almost entirely because O’Neill decided it would. Mixed in was a loss to Loyola Maryland where the Blue Devils trailed 10-2 at one point in the fourth quarter, and most recently, a 14-10 defeat to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in which the Blue Devils never led.
O’Neill may have grabbed his seventh hat-trick of the season and Adler may have had 10 saves, but good performances from two players shouldn’t overshadow what was otherwise a disjointed one. The Orange, on the other hand–widely considered the weakest squad in the ACC–were almost perfect.
A goalkeeping masterclass from Bobby Gavin that probably gave him the starting spot for the rest of the year? Yep. A 5-1 first quarter lead? Uh huh. A one-handed between-the-legs shot that squeezed between Adler’s legs for Syracuse’s 13th goal? You betcha.
It’s too early to start catastrophizing, absolutely, but the Blue Devils have serious questions to answer. Perhaps the biggest among these are how to score when O’Neill isn’t and how to lock out shots before they end up in, or out, of Adler’s stick.
To their credit, McAdorey and Lulley made reasonable cases for the former, each chipping in with two goals and a combined seven shots on target. The freshman midfielder’s drives consistently gave Syracuse (4-4, 1-1) problems and helped instigate a third quarter fightback attempt, while the graduate attacker pestered the Orange from X and snagged his side’s first goal.
Outside of O’Neill, Adler, McAdorey and Lulley, however, Duke looked lost at sea. Robertson, who put up 36 goals last season, has seen that tally dwindle this year despite a beautiful leaping goal in upstate New York. Kenny Brower, the junior tasked with reinventing a defense absent of Giles-Harris, has struggled to lead his new-look backline. Nakeie Montgomery, a preseason All-ACC midfielder, struggled to exert his usual influence.
Of course, a large part of the Blue Devils’ struggles against Syracuse must come down to the latter’s excellence, but its excellence shouldn’t have been possible in the first place.
Duke is supposed to be a free-scoring menace, but struggled to score and instead let the Orange run riot. Its attackers got bullied by a tough Syracuse defense and were regularly dispossessed, and the midfield trio of Brendan Curry, Griffin Cook and Tyler Cordes had their way in controlling the pace. The Orange pounced on shaky transition defense throughout the day for an array of fast-break goals and locked down the cage on their own end to hold the Blue Devils firmly at bay.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Tucker Dordevic grabbed a quick pass from a coast-to-coast run by a Syracuse long-pole after forcibly taking the ball off an unaware O’Neill. Just to twist the dagger, he whipped his stick between his legs and nutmegged the Duke goalie to kill any sniffs of a Duke fightback. The Blue Devils were within a goal at that point, but their own disconnectedness and Syracuse’s craftiness proved fatal.
There’s still plenty of time to steady its keel, but there's work to do. Questions of cohesion have arisen once more despite the talent it has at its disposal, and the dream of a title in May seems increasingly optimistic with each loss.
After the disappointing end it saw to its previous campaign, one can’t help but worry if struggles like these are becoming par for the course. One would suspect not, but these Blue Devils have questions to answer, and fast.
Duke next travels to Chapel Hill for a weekend date with North Carolina.
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