After a third-round exit in the NCAA tournament last season, the Blue Devils got off to a fresh start and built a solid foundation for another successful season with a pair of wins.
The 12th-ranked Blue Devils started the season with a 1-0 win Friday evening against San Diego and defeated Milwaukee 4-0 Sunday afternoon to win the John Rennie Nike Invitational at Koskinen Stadium. After a slow start on offense Friday, Duke started creating more opportunities and executing them as they made up the goal differential to Elon, the second-place team in the weekend’s tournament. Duke won the tiebreak by accumulating the least yellow cards.
"It certainly gives us confidence and we found a lot of things about our play that we liked," head coach John Kerr said after the game. "And also some issues that we need to work on and we get better, like really early in the season, but I feel good about the direction we're headed, and that was a good weekend for us."
Against Milwaukee, Duke was aggressive from the beginning of the game, using a 3-4-3 formation to strengthen the midfield and organize a more powerful attack. The Blue Devils prevented Milwaukee from working into the front third early, giving the home side more possesion time in the first half and allowing the Blue Devils to outshoot the Panthers 17-6 for the game.
Sophomore midfielder Shakur Mohammed, MVP of the tournament, led the way by using his speed and agility to pressure the Milwaukee defense near the goal box. The attacking effort paid off when Mohammed scored the first goal of the game in the 19th minute to get Duke on the board first and celebrated with his teammates by running to the corner of the field to kiss the grass. A lightning delay slowed their momentum, but the Blue Devils kept their opponents scoreless through the end of the first half, at which point another lightning delay occurred.
After an extended halftime, the Blue Devils broke through the midfield defense in transition and junior midfielder Nick Pariano scored off of fellow junior Peter Stroud’s assist to secure a two-goal lead. On a day full of weather delays, the lightning-fast Mohammed struck again to put the lead out of reach, scoring from the perimeter of the box in the top right corner of the goal.
"He's dynamic," Kerr said of Mohammed. "He's hungry, aggressive, talented, creative. We're very lucky to have him. Super kid. As you see him in the game today, he works that hard in practice every day. He's quite an amazing young man and a great player."
Pariano also stepped up as a playmaker on offense with an assist and a goal. The junior will likely play a bigger role as a team leader and veteran this season, and is happy with the way the team has played together so far.
"I think the chemistry has been really good," Pariano said. "Usually it takes a couple of games for guys to feel comfortable with each other. But those first couple of preseason games we worked really hard, sorted some stuff out."
When the Blue Devils took a 3-0 lead with Mohammad’s second goal, the only question left in the game was whether Duke could catch up to Elon's goal tally to win the tournament. With less than 20 minutes left in the second half, freshman forward Alex Bonnington answered with a goal on a corner kick taken by Pariano to take a 4-0 lead, tying Elon’s goal count for the tournament.
The Blue Devils had several more good scoring opportunities, but were unable to convert on any of them after a shot that found the back of the net didn’t count because of an offside call. Because Duke and Elon were tied for goals scored and goals allowed, the tie was broken based on the number of yellow cards accumulated, leading to a Duke win.
To Pariano, who praised Duke's freshmen after Sunday's win, the second game of the weekend was a great improvement from the Blue Devils' opener Friday and winning the tournament was a big step in the right direction.
"We wanted to win," Pariano said. "It's good to get four goals today after seeing the results before the game. And keep to clean sheets is massive. It's great for us. It's exactly what we wanted. We didn't play great at every moment, but it's something to build off of and we got the job done."
The Blue Devils will certainly celebrate an opening weekend tournament win, but continue their schedule with a Thursday match against Michigan in Durham at 5 p.m.
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