When dad is out of town, responsibility falls to the oldest brother in the house. With head coach John Kerr off the field for the night, it was up to senior captain Nick Pariano to take care of the team.
The 21st-ranked Blue Devils welcomed College of Charleston to Koskinen Stadium Tuesday evening for a much-needed break from ACC competition. A 3-2 Duke victory sent the Cougars back to South Carolina after a valiant effort that held firm against the Blue Devils until graduate striker Forster Ajago’s late two-goal rescue mission.
“Everyone knew the circumstances,” Pariano said after the match. “We needed a win. Nothing but a win was okay.”
After two weekends of defeat, the Blue Devils (5-2-1, 1-2 in the ACC) played Tuesday night’s game with a relentless, vengeance-soaked energy that manifested itself as wicked-sharp passes and tricky, manipulative footwork. The match was an angry, passionate dance performed for an ambitious Charleston (2-1-5, 1-0-2 in the CAA) audience, and it could have earned a spot on Broadway.
“I think we played some really good football,” said associate head coach Michael Brady, who acted as head coach during Kerr’s absence. He added, “It just didn't result in goals galore as you would hope.”
Pariano made the first big play of the game with a penalty kick in the final minutes of the first half, neatly tucking the ball into the top right corner of the net while Charleston goalkeeper Olly Marshall dove in the opposite direction. But that goal did not come easily.
The Blue Devils shot and shot all night. Sixteen times in the first half, 19 times in the second, for a grand total of 35 attempted shots, nine on goal. The ACC lost some money on soccer balls, Tuesday, too — three of them went flying over the fence in the first half alone. Needless to say, there was a little extra oomph behind those kicks.
“The quality is unbelievable until we get close to that little white wooden thing with a net on,” Brady said. “And then different things take over — emotions, you get excited, you want to do it so badly sometimes that you force it or you rush it.”
The dancers really started to move when a pretty Ajago goal was called offside 10 minutes into the game. Junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles did his best to compensate with a vicious arc headed straight above Marshall’s glove — which bounced deceptively off the top wood, just millimeters away from scoring. Ajago tried again, and again, and Charleston deflected again, and again. The southern port town, home to Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and the USS Yorktown, is known for its defensive strongholds; its college soccer team was no exception Tuesday.
There were eight minutes and two seconds left in the match when Ajago matched Charleston’s score off a Mesalles assist. There were five minutes and five seconds left when his ruthless header knocked the ball into the goal once more.
“I knew if I took him off, he'd be really mad at me,” Brady said, laughing. “And if I put him back on he’d play with real anger — and he scored two goals!”
Thanks to Ajago — and Brady’s innovative coaching — the Blue Devils claimed their first victory in nearly three weeks. With so much talent on the team, though, this is perhaps surprising. Duke does not have a problem with possession or handling, and Pariano in particular proved that Tuesday. Together with fellow senior captain Amir Daley, the Philadelphia native ran possession all night, his dribbling graceful and controlled.
But Duke has struggled with its finishing.
“Some of the finishing was a bit poor, but I think the bigger problem was maybe the last ball, the service, the cross, the through ball, just wasn't the right pace, wasn’t the right shape,” Brady said. “It's funny, because we work on finishing every day. So we'd like to think [in] games where we take 35 shots, we're going to score three, four, five, six goals, no problem. You live and you learn.”
When the weather went downhill in the opening minutes of the second half, so did Duke’s luck. The heavens opened up and the soccer field was showered with raindrops. As if on cue, the Blue Devils gave up a goal. Opportunity came to Charleston after a physical dive from freshman goalie Julian Eyestone earned the Dallas native a yellow card in the box and set the Cougars’ Leonardo D'Ambrosio up for a penalty shot that he sank comfortably far away from Eyestone’s reaching hands.
Duke did its best to answer, but for an ominous stretch of precious second-half minutes, the team was completely ineffective. Not the case for the Cougars. While the Blue Devils took custody of the soccer ball for most of the game — 67% of it, actually — Charleston capitalized on its opportunities at the goal, scoring twice in seven attempts. That second Cougar goal came from a free kick lineup that gave visiting forward Thomas Peter a back-door entrance into the net with a close-up kick next to the left post. Charleston spent less than half the time that Duke did with the ball, and only lost by one goal.
“Today, with Coach Kerr out, we definitely adjusted a bit,” said Pariano. “The players’ voices on the pitch were really important to keep the tempo up and to see the win through.”
A daunting challenge awaits the Blue Devils at the end of the week: Friday, with Kerr back in action, they’ll welcome the reigning national champions to Durham. Duke kicks off against Syracuse at 7 p.m.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.