On Friday night, Koskinen Stadium is coming back to life. Ringing in its season with a match against Jacksonville, Duke will be back in action and ambitious as ever.
“Seniors … with a lot to prove … have had great careers and are hungry for more,” said head coach John Kerr at a media availability last week, gesturing to the players sitting around him.
Veterans are, indeed, a defining characteristic in the program this year; the roster is rife with junior and senior players — even some graduate students — who are looking for their chance to take the Blue Devils all the way to a national title. This lofty ambition does not come without merit, as Duke took the ACC regular season title outright last year as well as a run to the national quarterfinals. The team’s respective performances against Clemson and Creighton did ultimately lead to the end of their ACC and NCAA tournament runs, but they also showcased Duke talent that, on another day, might have won out.
“We have a lot of returning guys that have tasted a bit of success,” said senior midfielder Nick Pariano, one of those veterans. “But we didn't get as far as we wanted to get. And now we have a bit of experience and will feel a little more comfortable when we get in that position again.”
Indeed, much of last year’s talent is still hanging around. Seniors Pariano, Amir Daley and Antino Lopez head into their fourth season with the Blue Devils together, now with three eventful years of shared soccer experience under their belts. These players have showcased their talents all over the field for several seasons and will continue to do so. But now, they’re bringing experience and development with that talent, too.
Still, there is an element of balance on this year’s roster. Shakur Mohammed and Peter Stroud have both departed Duke for the MLS, leaving behind two pairs of cleats that are not easy to fill. Eliot Hamill, the Blue Devils’ starting goalkeeper since 2021, said his goodbyes to the program as well after finishing out his graduate year. So while Kerr can lean on trusty upperclassmen like Pariano, he’s looking for additional assets in some new names as well.
“We have guys coming in — guys that have been here and are experienced and played lots of minutes last year — that I know the rest of us have full confidence in,” Pariano said. “And I'm really excited to see what they do now with these holes opening up. It's just more opportunities for new guys to step in.”
In terms of this team’s best assets, the defense is looking to be Duke’s M.O. just like it was last season. Both Lopez and Daley, along with sophomores Kamran Acito and Axel Gudbjornsson, are defenders who helped Duke to 11 regular-season shutouts. In 2022, 41 percent of shots from opponents were on-goal, and only 11 of them went in all season.
“We have four starting defenders coming back with a lot of experience. We also have an excellent goalkeeper, with Julian [Eyestone] coming in, to add to that defense,” Kerr said.
This season is certainly shaping up to be an interesting one for the Blue Devils. They’re sitting pretty with a preseason No. 4 ranking (the highest in the ACC) and riding the heels of a two-loss season, and none during the regular season. There are high expectations for this Duke squad, and plenty of possibilities. -Sophie Levenson
Returning players to watch: Kamran Acito and Nick Pariano
Acito, a central defender from Manhattan, N.Y., was widely regarded as one of the best freshmen in the country last year. Now back for his sophomore season, Acito will be looking to build on a campaign that saw him named ACC Freshman of the Year and All-Freshman First Team by College Soccer News. Acito provides a valuable amount of speed to a position that is often one of the slower spots on the field, and while he scored just one goal last year he will be a key part of a back line that aims to set up forwards with quality scoring opportunities
“We have four starting defenders coming back with a lot of experience,” Kerr said. “So we feel that's probably our biggest strength.”
A key piece for the Blue Devils on the other end of the field will be senior midfielder Pariano. The All-ACC Second Teamer was also named a member of the preseason All-ACC squad this year, and will be an important facilitator and scorer for the Duke offense. This is especially true with the departure of two key offensive assets in Stroud and Mohammed. Both players were instrumental in the Blue Devil attack last season, and both are now gone to play in the MLS. With them gone, Pariano will likely take on a more forward-facing role in the Duke gameplan.
“We've adopted different roles, and Nick [has] taken on a more aggressive offensive role this year. He's going to be a centerpiece of our offense and get more involved in the final third,” Kerr said. “It'll be a little bit different than what we've posed last year and the year before, but I think you'll see some really good results from it.”
New players to watch: Julian Eyestone and Forster Ajago
Freshman goalkeeper Julian Eyestone has big shoes to fill. Last year’s keeper, Hamill, was a two-year starter and the defensive anchor of the squad. Hamill was the 2022 ACC Goalkeeper of the Year, also landing on the All-America Second Team while allowing just 0.58 goals per game and posting an 84.5% save rate. He was also a major on-field presence, unafraid to make his discontent with referees or opposing players heard.
Eyestone seems to be stepping into his role nicely. He posted shutouts in two of the three preseason exhibition games the Blue Devils have played, and has been unafraid to bark orders or words of encouragement to his teammates. The FC Dallas academy prospect was the No. 3 goalkeeping prospect in his class coming into the season, and if he can perform anywhere close to the level that Hamill did last year he will certainly provide a hefty insurance policy to the already-elite Duke defensive core.
“He's poised for a young man and you can tell by how he handles himself,” Kerr said, “We're lucky to have him. I think there'll be some bumps in the road. But certainly, we're going to be strong back there.”
The other name to know in terms of new personnel will be important on the opposite end of the pitch. Graduate student transfer Forster Ajago, coming from Dayton, will be an important player to watch. Ajago led his team in goals in his senior season, racking up seven. Now playing for the Blue Devils, he too will look to fill some of the void left by Mohammed’s departure. -Heintzelman
Most anticipated matchup: at Clemson, Sept. 15
All eyes are on the Tigers when it comes to Duke football — and they should be on Clemson for this kind of football, too. After winning the national championship back in 2021, the Tigers proved the only ACC team that could break through Duke’s aggressive defense last season. On a difficult day for the Blue Devil faithful, Clemson shut out Duke’s then-undefeated squad in a 2-0 heartbreaker that kicked the home team in Koskinen Stadium out of the conference tournament at the quarterfinals. Now, the Blue Devils are ranked higher than the Tigers — who sit at No. 9 — and will head into their Sept. 15 matchup with quite the chip on their shoulder. Clemson’s roster is heavy on freshman talent. Duke’s is rife with veteran knowledge. Only the soccer field can settle a fight like this one.
The advantage lies with the Tigers, however, who will host the match on their Historic Riggs Field — a good four hours from Durham. -Levenson
Although coming into last year with hopes of an ACC championship, it’s hard to imagine anyone anticipating the success that the Blue Devils had in their undefeated regular season. Coming into this year, the hype is real: Ranked fourth in the nation, Duke is among the favorites to capture its first ACC title since 2006. The Blue Devils will hope to live up to the hype and compete for even more than their conference, but a lot rides on incoming freshman goalkeeper Eyestone to maintain Hamill’s standard. Should Duke’s loaded class of returners keep their form, its eyes must be set on competing for the national championship. -Garrett Spooner
The losses of Mohammed and Stroud are nothing to scoff at, both of whom were major pieces in Duke’s successful campaign last season. In last year’s ACC quarterfinal, the Blue Devils struggled to compete against a Clemson roster that will again feature loads of talent. Should Duke become complacent, matches against reigning national champions Syracuse, Wake Forest and Virginia could prove fatal towards the team’s postseason hopes. If all goes wrong, the Blue Devils could find themselves barely missing out on an at-large NCAA tournament berth. -Spooner
Heintzelman: 13-2, ACC runners-up, loss in NCAA semifinal
Levenson: 13-1-1, ACC champions, loss in NCAA semifinal
Spooner: 12-1-2, ACC runners-up, loss in NCAA quarterfinal
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.