With a first-round bye, the Blue Devils had two possibilities for their first opponent of the ACC tournament: the defending ACC champion or the defending national champion. In one of the weirdest soccer games of the season, the defending national champion won out, as Clemson downed Notre Dame 3-1 with the help of two own goals.
Regardless of how the Tigers won, though, No. 1-seed Duke will face a formidable foe Sunday at 8 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. Likely due to some key injuries throughout the season, No. 8-seed Clemson does not have the most glamorous record—it finished the regular season 11-5-1, 3-4-1 in the ACC. However, the Tigers are back at full strength and are led by some of the same core that carried them to a national championship just a year ago.
Defender Hamady Diop and midfielder Ousmane Sylla, juniors, both received second team All-ACC honors last season, and senior forward Isaiah Reid was named the 2021 College Cup Most Outstanding Player. Meanwhile, fellow senior forward Mohamed Seye, who played through an ACL tear with extremely limited minutes late last season, has had a comeback campaign with four goals and 14 points.
“[They have] A lot of good habits, a lot of pride, they know how to win,” Duke head coach John Kerr told The Chronicle. “They are going to compete no matter what, and they're going to be a difficult opponent. They're going to have discipline in their game, a lot of movement that we have to deal with.”
Clemson has a more aggressive offense than the Blue Devils, averaging both the third-most shots and fourth-most points per game in the conference, which has resulted in seven of the Tigers’ 11 wins coming by multiple goals. Though Clemson had a down stretch late with three losses and a tie, it has scored three goals in each of its last three games.
On the flip side, though, Clemson’s defense has struggled at points this season. Aside from the aforementioned loss streak, it has given up multiple goals five times this season, including a 6-1 rout at the hands of Wake Forest.
However, this all just means that the Blue Devils can win if they do what they have done best: defend. As has been key all season, the main strength this team possesses is its habit of keeping its net clear. It bears repeating that Duke, largely due to graduate goalkeeper Eliot Hamill, has conceded just five goals in 15 games, kept 11 clean sheets and saved 90% of the shots it has faced. Think about that for a second: Five goals conceded, 15 games played, a 90% save rate—in college soccer’s toughest conference by far.
“His communication skills have really improved in the last few years since he's been playing. And it's been really helpful for our back four and defensive midfielders to have someone back there that knows what he's doing and is communicating well and early and often,” Kerr said of Hamill.
The graduate student leads the country, not just the conference, in the major goalie stats—goals against average and save percentage, in which he is the only goalie with a .900 mark. However, he trails in saves per game simply because the Blue Devils’ back line does not make him work too hard. Hamill gets to play the hero plenty, but of the ACC’s top-10 save percentage leaders, he has faced the third-fewest total shots thanks to Duke’s overall defensive prowess.
In fact, the Massey Ratings rank the Blue Devils as the top defense in the country, and having dealt with a few injuries and suspensions throughout the season, it is really only recently that we have seen the group come into full form. Now, it is undeniable that this same defensive resolve will be paramount against a Clemson group known for its knack for finding goals when it needs them.
“They got a lot of weapons,” Kerr said. “Really strong in the air, for example on set pieces, and a winning mentality that we have to work on.”
While the Tigers are the most recent recipient of the famous College Cup and no doubt possess a winning mentality, it would be foolish to say the Blue Devils do not. On their resume include gritty away wins against then-No. 10 Louisville and then-No. 1 Wake Forest, and strong showings against the likes of then-No. 21 Virginia, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Within those five games, by far their most difficult of the season to date, the Blue Devils conceded just four goals and trailed just once.
Though it has not always been the prettiest soccer, Duke has yet to fail a test or trip over a hurdle in 2022. The same cannot be said for the two preceding seasons, in which the Blue Devils lost 10 and five games, respectively. Nonetheless, it seems that defeats of yore have inspired victories of now.
“Not having a loss this year has been a blessing, and we've worked hard for it,” Kerr said. “It was kind of mandatory, [to get the top seed] … so, we don’t have to travel. We like playing at Koskinen, we like to train on our own practice field … That familiarity is a massive bonus.”
Whether it was Notre Dame or Clemson, Sunday’s match was always going to carry significant emotional weight. A victory against the reigning ACC champions would alleviate 2021’s stinging defeat to the Fighting Irish while a matchup with the weakened, but still reigning national champion, Tigers could make it two straight years of Blue Devil dominance. Of course, soccer is a game of slim margins—Clemson is only here because of a couple of own goals, after all—but Duke has proven time and again that it has the toughness and talent to get over the line when games get tight.
“We're just looking to be solid and perform well,” Kerr said. “I know that if we understand our game plan and put it into practice, we'll have a good night.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.