Tobacco Road games always provide a show, but Friday night’s marquee matchup at Koskinen Stadium may have just earned itself a spot on Broadway.
It was a combative, end-to-end affair from whistle to whistle, punctuated by all the physical fouls, moments of quality and bundles of bubbled-up tension one might expect in a Duke-North Carolina game. With a couple of quick-fire goals in the first half and seemingly endless long passes from keeper to forward and back again, it had all the markings of a shootout. While it did not live up to that moniker and finished 1-1, it was certainly a match that will be remembered as one of the most entertaining the Blue Devils have played this season.
“I thought we played well,” Duke head coach John Kerr said after the game. “Another day, we would have scored three or four goals and deserved a bit more from this game.”
Kerr’s group started hot from the gun, resisting some early Tar Heel pressure to slip junior midfielder Nick Pariano in on the left flank. He sent a pinpoint backheel for Ruben Mesalles to incisively cross into the path of junior defender Amir Daley for the sliding toe-poke finish.
The celebrations from the sea of royal blue were rapturous but ultimately short-lived. Within just three seconds of the restart, Duke goalie Eliot Hamill was picking the ball out of his own net. A similarly incisive through ball caught the Blue Devils’ new-look defensive shape all out of sorts from kickoff, and as quickly as the home side established its lead, North Carolina forward Akeim Clarke equalized.
“I thought we played really well overall,” Kerr said. “We got burned on one of the mistakes that we made and it made us pay.”
This lapse in defensive resoluteness has been uncharacteristic of Kerr’s Duke team, which has conceded just two goals in five games this season. Part of this may be down to the lingering absence of junior center back Lewis McGarvey, but Blue Devil fans must have been encouraged to see the 6-foot-2 Belfast native suited up and on the sidelines.
Despite its early concession, Duke (4-0-1) otherwise looked steady, with the return of freshman phenom Axel Gudbjornsson—and his 6-foot-4 frame—a welcome boon to a defense that lacked height and physicality in its narrow win against then-No. 10 Louisville. Though he didn’t score from one, his physical presence in the box on the Blue Devils’ 10 corner kicks and eagerness to throw himself at Tar Heel long balls gave North Carolina (3-2-1) a headache throughout the match.
Late in the second half, Gudbjornsson was forced to sprint half the field to chase down a North Carolina attacker with an open channel at goal, but his lunging challenge proved just enough to reverse the momentum and send Duke the other way.
“He causes havoc in the final third [and] on free kicks and everything,” Kerr said. “And he's a good passer of the ball. So I'm really, really happy with him. Glad to have him back.”
When discussing headaches for the visitors, one must also bring up Shakur Mohammed. He nearly had his evening called early after a rough tackle left him on the ground clutching his ankle, but the reigning ACC Co-Offensive Player of the Week sprang back to life and remained Duke’s most potent attacking threat.
The sophomore was the difference-maker in Duke’s victory against Louisville and looked dangerous throughout the game, firing narrowly wide from a speculative chance outside the box and getting stopped mere inches away from an open look on several occasions.
It was by no means his most statistically impressive game for Duke, but it is another reminder that Kerr has one of the ACC’s brightest prospects in his ranks.
What was perhaps surprising before kickoff was the fight North Carolina would put up against an undefeated and immensely talented Blue Devil group high on energy after its hard-fought win against the Cardinals.
Though widely regarded as royalty in college soccer, the Tar Heels have seen a slow start to 2022. The two-time NCAA champions suffered successive home defeats to Florida International and No. 10 Pittsburgh to turn their respectable 3-0 record into 3-2. Their schedule does not let up much either in the next few weeks, as the Chapel Hill outfit challenges reigning ACC champion Notre Dame and reigning NCAA champion Clemson consecutively.
For the Blue Devils, Friday’s result is a momentum hit but it is far from derailing. It is easy to forget that ties after 90 minutes are a recent addition to the college game and that Duke has still conceded just two goals all season, but equally, given how much it controlled the game in the second half, it probably should have logged at least two of its own.
“We didn't win, but we can't harp on it,” sophomore midfielder Peter Stroud said. “We're still undefeated. So we gotta keep that in the back of our mind and just keep pushing … right now it's just about putting your head down and just moving on.”
Shows don’t always end the way the audience wants them to, and it’s safe to say the crowd at Koskinen felt the same. What it got to witness, however, was one of Duke’s most entertaining events in recent memory and a glimpse at the swashbuckling, machine this team can be if everything clicks.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.