Anyone familiar with Greek mythology is likely familiar with the tale of Sisyphus—the man whose eternal punishment in Hades required him to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll all the way back down just inches from the summit. It is a common metaphor in everyday life for pursuits that just barely fall short of completion and one that, for better or worse, perfectly embodied Duke's 1-1 draw against Yale Tuesday night.
The fourth-ranked Blue Devils were left flustered by the Bulldogs, whose aggression and eagerness to tackle shut down any traces of consistent momentum. Duke had by far the better chances and threatened to kill the game on multiple occasions, but in that Sisyphean way, just could not seem to push the boulder over the summit and leave Koskinen Stadium with a win.
“Tough game, [Yale] was a good team,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. “They were up for it … they were aggressive and chippy, and we had to deal with it and stand up to it.”
Even though results have gone largely in their favor, the Blue Devils (6-0-2, 2-0-1 in the ACC) have seemed a bit unlike themselves in recent weeks. Where the offense usually prides itself on its fluidity and directness—like a knife through butter—in recent weeks, it feels like the knife has dulled and the butter has hardened, and its early season shutout streak has swapped for uncharacteristic lapses in shape and easy goals.
For long stretches, Tuesday threatened to see more of that trend. At the end of a low-tempo, low-action first half, however, Ruben Mesalles’ wand of a left foot came along to try and reverse it.
With just more than five minutes to play in the first half, junior midfielder Peter Stroud teed Mesalles up on the edge of the box, and the sophomore made no mistake as he whipped in a shot. The ball curled toward the back post for sophomore midfielder Felix Barajas to tuck in confidently for the 1-0 lead, and from there, the mojo seemed to firmly be in the Blue Devils’ corner.
“We scored three, four goals this season on that back post run, so we're gonna encourage our guys anytime a cross comes across, be ready at the back post and make your runs into your post and good things will happen,” Kerr said.
A goal from Yale’s Kahveh Zahiroleslam settled the score deep into the second half and quieted any whispers of a straightforward Duke win, however. What was most certainly not quiet was the infuriated crowd, which was steadily wound up by a series of non-calls it clearly believed should have been granted.
Junior defender Amir Daley was forcefully dispossessed and grounded with obvious discomfort, but the referees waved play on, resulting in the Bulldogs’ equalizer seconds later. Throughout the 90 minutes, players collided, crashed and cried out in a uniquely testy affair that saw two Blue Devil standouts—Nick Pariano and Kenan Hot—exit the field limping after particularly crunching challenges.
A straight red card to Yale’s Jonathan Seidman in the 71st minute gave Duke an opportunity to push for the winner, but the Bulldogs (4-0-3) sat back, utilized tactical fouling to their advantage and held firm for the last portion of the match.
“It's difficult to break them down after that,” Kerr said. “Although, we did create two or three chances down the stretch and were unfortunate to not finish those.”
Aside from the goal it conceded, Duke’s defensive unit performed admirably against Yale’s hulking forward line. With Mesalles, effectively an attacking wide midfielder, on the left and Daley on the right, most of the responsibility fell on freshmen center backs Kamran Acito and Axel Gudbjornsson to keep players out of the box and the ball out of the net.
“They're very strong boys,” Mesalles said. “[Daley is] a really good defender one on one, he's very fast and athletic and I am more of an offensive outlook, so they give me some more freedom to go up and they cover my back a little bit more.”
While the result might certainly be frustrating for Duke, one must not forget that the Blue Devils are one of just eight teams in the top 25 that remain unbeaten. Staying undefeated eight games through the season is a feat in and of itself, especially considering where the team was just a couple of years ago.
This group has grown a lot—in performances and in experience—and will have yet another chance to test itself Saturday against No. 1 team and ACC rival Wake Forest. That will be Duke’s true litmus test, and only 90 minutes separate the Blue Devils from continued invincibility and their first taste of defeat in 2022.
“We'll compete,” Kerr said. “It's going to be a tough game. They're a really good team … and we know how talented they are. It’ll be a good soccer match for sure.”
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.