Leading into the 2008 financial crisis, banks engaged in increasingly risky behavior justified by the fact that they were too big to fail. We know now that that logic led to one of the most disastrous collapses of any entity in history, and, ridiculous as it may seem, many sports teams have risen and fallen in the same way, too loaded with talent to see systemic flaws. Then, when they face some pressure and things don’t completely click, they collapse, because they were never equipped to confront their own failings.
No. 3 Duke, in rematching an old foe at home and winning, proved it has not fallen into that trap. As the Blue Devils downed the Fighting Irish 2-0 at Koskinen Stadium, they got their revenge for the 2021 ACC title game, but not without playing some messy, scrappy soccer. However, performing under pressure is not about being perfect, it’s about prevailing, and Duke, despite some second-half discombobulation, was able to fall back on a battle-tested system and do just that.
“I thought we were excellent in the first half,” head coach John Kerr said. “And I thought Notre Dame came out with a lot of energy and a lot of purpose in the second half and made it difficult for us. ... And when they play that way, you have to deal with it.”
Duke entered the locker room with a 1-0 lead, having outshot the Fighting Irish 2-1 in the opening frame. However, the Blue Devils’ 58% possession share at the half proved what the eye test indicated: The low shot count was a result of Duke waiting for the right plays, a privilege afforded to it through robust passing and calculated risk-taking.
Former striker and scoring leader Thorleifur Ulfarsson departed for the MLS after last season and took with him the Blue Devils’ only true target man. Fittingly, he was in the stands Friday as his former team implemented a new offensive strategy. Without someone to redirect every cross into the net, Duke holds onto the ball for longer stretches, waiting for an opening. When one comes, the Blue Devils build out a push toward the net from the bottom up, relying on the back line to read the field, then the midfield to maneuver and carry the ball up, eventually feeding sophomore forward Shakur Mohammed from the flanks to create a play.
“It's a little bit [of a] different style that we have this year compared to last year, and. ... I think it's one of the areas that we can still make some strides in,” Kerr said. “We have the ability to be a little bit more patient with the ball, and we try to move it as much as we can. We made Notre Dame really work in the first half. ... So that was the idea, is to create opportunities and keep them moving.”
The tactic paid off, as it often does, with a timely goal to give Duke a well-earned lead. In the 25th minute, Mohammed collected a boot near the top of the box and passed the ball out to junior acting wingback Amir Daley deep in the top right corner of the pitch. Daley then sailed a perfect cross back to Mohammed who buried a bar-down header.
It was the type of play—one of many in the first—that made you think, “They definitely practiced this exact scenario,” and it exemplified what the Blue Devils can execute when they play near-perfect soccer. But what about when they aren’t playing perfectly? Well, as it turns out, they execute about the same thing.
In the second half, the Fighting Irish rallied tremendously, controlling a much more even share of possession and rocketing from just one shot—and a middling one at that—in the first to eight by the end of the match, doubling Duke’s count. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils couldn’t connect on their passes, committing egregious giveaways and resorting to profligate physicality to the effect of nine second-half fouls out of 11 total.
Still, for all the passes that didn’t meet their mark, most of the time someone was there to adjust and collect them anyway because positioning and overall chemistry were so strong. And for as much of an offensive push as Notre Dame made, the Blue Devils still stepped up defensively, even if they had to rely heavily on last-minute blocks and the prowess of graduate goalkeeper Eliot Hamill. Ultimately, each time the Fighting Irish made a run at the goal, Duke could fight it off and begin the often arduous process of making its own.
In the 82nd minute, the system paid off again. While the second half lacked many of the pretty give-and-gos of the first, the ball still found its way to the feet of Mohammed eventually. This time, he received the ball closer to the center circle and handed it off with a quick heel kick to junior midfielder Luke Thomas. Thomas darted just inside the penalty box and set up Mohammed for the sliding finish and his second goal of the night.
“My style of play is mostly dependent on checking into spaces around the box, but the coaches also told me to get in the box. So I guess the combinations of dropping and making up the play, but then also getting into the box. ... led to me secondary assisting my own goals,” Mohammed said of creating his own scoring plays.
Still, Mohammed emphasized that the entire roster has to take responsibility to ensure scoring, and that is clearly demonstrated in how the Blue Devils have all bought into the system that makes those scoring plays possible.
As the Blue Devils prepare for their final regular-season games, there are certainly things about this one that they will want to leave behind. At the end of the day, though, plenty of teams can win when they play perfectly; it proves something special to win a high-pressure match when the chips are down. Over and over again Friday night, Duke demonstrated that, for all its little flaws and missteps, its system as a whole works, and that is a long time in the making.
“I think we can improve,” Kerr said. “[But] I can't complain too much, because we're winning, we're getting shutouts. So we’ve just got to keep plugging away.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.