Duke associate head coach Michael Brady turned to the camera and gave two thumbs up, then sophomore forward Shakur Mohammed kissed the ground. The Ghana native had just scored, in the 82nd minute, what would end up the game-winning goal.
After a breakneck game Saturday evening at Lynn Family Stadium, nothing better conveyed how the seventh-ranked Blue Devils likely felt to pull out a 2-1 win against No. 10 Louisville.
“It was a hard-earned victory. … It was a big performance, especially going down a goal… and I’m really proud of the players,” head coach John Kerr said after the game.
Mohammed’s goal was emblematic of how Duke (4-0) fought to remain undefeated, as he ran up against two Louisville defenders at the top of the box. Seemingly trapped, he did not let that stop him, dancing around them with his signature meticulous footwork and lasering the ball into the bottom left corner as soon as he had an open lane.
“It's his routine, something special to him,” Kerr said of Mohammed’s celebration. “I love seeing him kiss the ground, because that means we've scored.”
He was certainly relieved to see it after the amount of pressure the Cardinals put on Duke. The game’s momentum came in waves, largely due to weak midfield play from the Blue Devils. Louisville (3-2) was able to tear through to Duke’s penalty area with relative ease and rain shots on goal; the Cardinals finished with nine to the Blue Devils’ four.
The first half especially favored Louisville, as Duke worked to counter the speed and passing accuracy that the Cardinals brought, and it ultimately ended with Louisville up one via the first goal the Blue Devils have given up all season.
“They have really fast front runners, and we tried to negate the space for them to exploit us, so we kind of didn't press them in the first half,” Kerr said.
None of this is to say that Duke’s back line didn’t put up a fight. They were reduced to a three-back formation rather than their typical four-back, with 6-foot-4 freshman and top recruit Axel Gudbjornsson unavailable due to a red card from the Blue Devils’ last game against Michigan. The back line is also coping with the extended loss of junior center back Lewis McGarvey, who has yet to play this season, including exhibition games, as he is recovering from an April knee surgery, which Kerr confirmed to The Chronicle. According to Kerr, McGarvey began training again recently and could return within the next few weeks.
In the meantime, freshman Kamran Acito stepped up at center back, sandwiched between juniors Antino Lopez and Amir Daley, and the trio kept up with Louisville’s pressure. Blue Devil soccer has always relied on defenders to take away opportunities in the box, and Saturday they did just that. Though the amount of time the Cardinals spent directly in front of Duke’s goal likely raised the hairs on Blue Devil fans’ arms, the back line was often able to steal the ball or clear it before Louisville had a chance to get to Duke goalie Eliot Hamill. And when Louisville did break through, Hamill was there to gobble up the shot.
“They're really stepping up, and I'm really proud of them and happy that they're taking on this challenge,” Kerr said of Acito and the other freshmen on the field Saturday in light of the lineup losses.
However, the game broke open in the second half, and though Louisville still got plenty of opportunities, Duke got plenty of their own to match.
“In the second half, we decided to step it up a little bit and put pressure on them. And that kind of changed the complexion of the game a little bit, because we were able to get to their back four and win the ball in their half of the field,” Kerr said, emphasizing the changes Duke made at halftime.
Before Mohammed could ultimately score the go-ahead goal, sophomore forward Jai Bean had to first tie it up. He capitalized on the chances Duke was generating quickly, collecting a low-angle pass from junior midfielder Nick Pariano after Pariano drew out Louisville’s goalie, leaving Bean wide open to tap the ball into the back of the net.
Pariano was also credited with the assist on Mohammed’s goal, and he created both opportunities by moving the ball quickly and being patient in front of the goal, not forcing unideal shots. This is Pariano’s first season starting after playing the role of the reliable sub in years past, and he has more than made the most of the responsibility, especially as he emerges as a clever playmaker.
“He's a key player for us. He's so smart, and he brings intelligence and ability to score, ability to assist and the ability to keep the ball. And he's working his tail off as well defensively, and [I’m] really happy with the way he's progressing,” Kerr said.
Now, having defeated the No. 10 team in the country in spite of some flaws in their play, the Blue Devils should feel confident in what they can accomplish as they begins their conference slate in earnest. Next, as they take on rival North Carolina at home Friday at 7 p.m., the Blue Devils will look to build on the success they have found so far this season.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.