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No. 11 Duke men's soccer scores early but succumbs to North Carolina comeback as Kerr sees red

Forster Ajago dribbles the ball forward during Duke's game against North Carolina.
Forster Ajago dribbles the ball forward during Duke's game against North Carolina.

CHAPEL HILL— Casinos are rare in North Carolina. But you would not have known that with the way cards were being dealt out in No. 11 Duke’s Sunday afternoon game against the Tar Heels. 

The two squads racked up a combined 11 bookings in a nasty, physical game that saw North Carolina barely escape with a 2-1 win despite going down to 10 men with just under 25 minutes remaining. The chaotic matchup saw a total of 36 fouls called, including the ejection of Duke head coach John Kerr in the 33rd minute. 

The Blue Devils (5-2-1, 1-2 in the ACC) opened the scoring against the run of play 11 minutes into the game, when a pass from senior midfielder Nick Pariano intended for graduate transfer forward Forster Ajago took a deflection towards the goal. Ajago capitalized, beating out the Tar Heel defender and goalkeeper to slip the ball into the back of the open net. 

While Duke struck first, the Tar Heels (4-0-3, 1-0-2) equalized quickly. Just over four minutes later, North Carolina midfielder Andrew Czech found the ball at his feet at the edge of the penalty area. Freshman goalkeeper Julian Eyestone had no chance. The ball was perfectly placed in the opposite corner, well past Eyestone’s outstretched arms to even the score. 

From there, the barrage continued. The Tar Heels finally managed to claw ahead in the 31st minute, when Pariano made a brutal unforced error, giving up the ball to graduate forward Quenzi Huerman right outside the 18-yard box. Huerman made quick work of the opportunity, punching it home. Once again, Eyestone never even had a chance. 

As the game went on, the physicality saw a sharp uptick. It boiled over in the 32nd minute, when sophomore midfielder Wayne Frederick was called for a foul near the halfway line. Frederick was assessed a yellow card, much to the disdain of Kerr. Kerr was given a booking to match Frederick’s for arguing, and then racked up a second yellow and subsequent ejection after also taking issue with his own card. 

From there, it only got more and more tense. With a minute left in the first period, some contact escalated into pushing and shoving. The two teams exited the field as time ran out, totalling 18 fouls in the first half. 

Whether it was Kerr’s ejection or the later infractions, the Blue Devils came out of halftime looking like a new team. Duke began knocking on the door early in the second period, as Ajago brought the ball down the sideline and crossed it in. Chaos ensued, but ultimately the result was just a slow dribbling shot that was easily handled by the North Carolina defense. 

While the Blue Devils had several quality chances early in the half, Duke consistently came up just short of the goal. After several minutes of a barrage, the game settled down as the ball drifted into the midfield and the two teams traded unsuccessful attacks. 

The visiting squad was once again revitalized 20 minutes into the second period, when Huerman picked up his second yellow card of the game on a poorly-timed tackle attempt. The Tar Heels were cut down to 10 men, and Duke did its best to take advantage.

From that point on, it was an almost non-stop barrage of shots and opportunities for the Blue Devils. The squad from Durham relied on its strong, speedy outside midfielders to move down the sidelines and create opportunities inside. Ajago stood tall as a constant offensive threat, attracting several Tar Heels wherever he went. His partner, freshman forward Ulfur Bjornsson, posed a similar problem. 

Despite an unrelenting press in the final minutes of the game, Duke could not find the back of the net. More than once late in the game, sequences unfolded where the ball looked like it was en route to the goal only to be stopped by a leaping or sliding North Carolina player. Twice, the ball hit the crossbar. Ultimately however, the Tar Heels escaped with their lives. 

To say this was a rough one would be an understatement. The amount of fouls was absurd, even for a rivalry game. Last year’s matchup saw 29 violations, compared to this year’s 36. Despite some very promising opportunities, the Blue Devils could not find the back of the net. Now, Duke will live with the consequences of playing in such a brutal game: Kerr will be forced to sit out the next game, and several players will be nursing minor injuries incurred as a result of the physical play.

The Blue Devils will have Tuesday evening’s game against Charleston to bounce back against a slightly weaker team, hoping to return to winning ways and recover from the grueling afternoon game. After that, the gauntlet continues as No. 7 Syracuse comes to town for a Friday night showdown.  


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