“To fall on one’s sword,” means to face the consequences of a situation you created. In many ways, Duke’s performance in the ACC quarterfinals reflected that adage.
Sunday evening at Koskinen Stadium, a Blue Devil team that earned its top seed via an impenetrable defense met a Clemson team that earned a national championship a year ago via an unwavering offensive attack. After 90 minutes of grueling, combative soccer, both teams had their flaws revealed and strewn up for the world to see, but in the end the Tigers proved they could power through anything, defeating previously undefeated Duke 2-0 and ending its dreams of an ACC championship.
“We were playing against one of the best teams in the country. There's no question about it. They showed that again tonight. But I also feel that we're playing like one of the best teams in the country,” Clemson head coach Mike Noonan said after the game. “You've got to play for 90 minutes. And you saw we played right to the last lesson. And sooner or later, they were gonna break down if we put them under enough pressure.”
The Tigers struck the first blow. With just under 20 minutes left in regulation, Clemson, doing what it had done all game, crowded around Duke’s box, suffocating its defense with pure manpower. After multiple Blue Devil attempts to strip the Tigers of the ball, midfielder Derek Waleffe broke free of the chaos and, for a split second, was all alone in the top right corner of the box. Before anyone could react, he sent a pinpoint shot right at Duke goalkeeper Eliot Hamill. The attempt ricocheted off Hamill and into the netting, and the Blue Devils were down one facing elimination.
For the remaining minutes of the game, Duke took a page out of Clemson’s book, moving everything forward, throwing every ball on net. It wouldn’t matter. Forty-five first-half minutes of playing not to lose hurt the Blue Devils, and by the time those final heroic minutes came, they were worn out. Right at the one-minute-remaining announcement, the Tigers broke through again, as Clemson midfielder Brandon Parrish burned Hamill in front of the left post and walked up to the goal line to seal the deal.
Duke fans streamed out of the stadium, and as they waited for what would be the final kickoff, the Blue Devils knelt to the ground mourning their tournament run. One minute later, it was official: Duke was out.
“We need to do better. I mean, we need to score a goal. We got in some good areas, and our last pass, but it's also them. They packed that area, and there's not a lot of room to operate. And I thought there was a couple positional moments when we should have gotten to the back post and finished off our chances, and we didn't,” Kerr said.
Arguably, the Tigers should have won by more. Four minutes in, a wall of Tigers came at the goal, and Hamill got caught out of position with a goal seemingly inevitable. But the Blue Devils descended on the goal line, blocking the initial shot and then clearing the rebound.
Clemson continued to lay it on after that, registering seven shots and three on goal in the first half. Though the Blue Devils had shifted their scheme to a four-back formation with the addition of Mesalles on the back line coming in, that only helped them escape the relentless pressure of the Tigers, not defeat it. Duke had to get shifty in its own territory against an opponent that liked to pack the box, playing the body and hoping to strip the ball in one-on-one battles.
“We, for a reason, haven't given a lot of goals away all season long. And [Duke’s defense] proved again, tonight. It could have been a lot worse, if they didn't have the wherewithal to galvanize themselves, to get in those positions and make blocks and stay with the runners and make the crucial headers,” Kerr said.
However, playing such aggressive defense left the Blue Devils prone to mistakes, such as midway through the first half when freshman defender Axel Gudbjornsson overcommitted to an attacking Clemson forward and was beaten, resulting in a point-blank shot opportunity that, thankfully for Duke, went clear over the goal.
That was one of many lucky breaks the Blue Devils received that ultimately lessened the hurt. Clemson, for all its strength, squandered many of its best opportunities by shooting wide, letting the ball trickle out of bounds, getting called offside on a for-sure opportunity and, for most of the game, getting outmuscled by the likes of freshmen defenders Kamran Acito and Gudbjornsson just feet away from the back netting.
“In the first 10 minutes of the game, we had the ball right in front of the goal. We should have scored twice, right? We had chances in front of the goal,” Noonan said. “We competed fiercely against Duke, and Duke competed fiercely against us, as all ACC teams do.”
In all, the tempo of the game eventually sapped the energy out of every player on the field, and the match devolved into a cacophony of fouls, sloppy errors and, through it all, unwavering presses towards either goal. The dynamics started early.
Just 30 seconds in, Duke got its first real chance of the game, as sophomore midfielder Shakur Mohammed picked up the ball in transition and popped it out to junior Swiss army knife Amir Daley on the wing. Though a Clemson defender was able to redirect Daley’s shot before it could reach the goal, it was an early signal of the speed with which the game would be played.
“They're really aggressive, and up for chasing and doing all the little dirty, hard things that not a lot of players or teams want to do,” Kerr said of the way the Tigers pushed the tempo.
The only thing that halted the flow of the match was the near-constant fouling by both teams. When the stakes rise, so do the tensions, and by the end of the match, each team had amassed 14 fouls. Clemson was also dealt four yellow cards, Duke one. With as chippy and angry as the game felt, an injury felt imminent, and, lo and behold, with 31:44 left in the second half, Hamady Diop, Clemson’s star defender, had to be helped off the field. Meanwhile, Duke junior defender Antino Lopez took two hard hits and left the game for some time before rejoining the team for the final few minutes.
Now, knowing the caliber of play that opponents will bring in the postseason, the Blue Devils refocus on the NCAA tournament. Clemson played well, but other teams could play even better in the future, and after a season of always being the Goliath, Duke now knows what it feels like to be David.
“It’s going to be this intense and more as we move forward,” Kerr said. “So many good teams out there, so many good players, and we all want to win, and so we've got to be up for it and adjusting.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.