Sometimes, all you need is for a couple of things to go your way.
On a clear Friday night at Koskinen Stadium, No. 21 Duke took down No. 7 Syracuse 5-3 following goals from Nick Pariano, Forster Ajago, Ulfur Bjornsson and Ruben Mesalles. After an early Syracuse goal, two mistakes by Syracuse keeper Jason Smith let the Blue Devils fight back into the match. But make no mistake about it, this result from the Blue Devils was earned, not given.
“It was a great spectacle, but for our health in the mind in terms of a heart attack, it wasn’t so great,” said head coach John Kerr.
Thirty-five minutes into the match, Syracuse’s defense turned to its keeper to switch the field, but Ajago’s pressure caused nightmares for Smith, blocking his clearance and going in on an empty net. In a flash, the Blue Devils (6-2-1, 2-2 in the ACC) turned the tide of the match and led two to one.
“The way Ian [McIntyre] sets up his team and the way I set up my team is we're trying to attack, go forward and create havoc offensively,” Kerr said. “Luckily, we were on the right side of the result.”
The Orange (4-2-3, 1-1-2) started the match scorching hot: Nicholas Kaloukian thumped a header off of a corner kick to take a lead just three minutes into the match. After the goal, however, Duke stayed composed and started to pile on the pressure, starting with a Pariano penalty kick to tie the match at one apiece.
“The way they were kind of gathering themselves together and making sure that we weren't going to sulk and feel sorry for ourselves was awesome to see as a coach,” Kerr said. “Going up at halftime was awesome.”
As the sun set and a full moon rose in the Durham sky, it was Bjornsson — whose first name means “wolf” in Icelandic — who added an insurance goal to Duke’s cause. With three minutes to play in the half, Bjornsson rose off his feet and glanced a header into the side netting, extending Duke’s lead to 3-1.
“I thought we were dangerous practically every time we got into their half,” Kerr said. “I thought we were going to create something, maybe not a goal, but create something where they had to defend us.”
To go into the half, Duke led by two goals, but in the second frame, the defending national champions refused to go away.
Throughout the match, Syracuse’s set pieces, especially the corner kick, threatened Duke’s defense. Jeorgio Kocevski’s corner deliveries were clinical, and as a result, Syracuse notched two goals off of Kocevski’s deliveries, a first to open the match and a second to cut Duke’s lead at the start of the second half.
“The last two days [we practiced] defending corner kicks,” Kerr said. “ We're disappointed with that aspect of our game.”
With 31 total fouls, the match was a physical one – even for an ever-aggressive ACC matchup. Nevertheless, Duke was the squad that showed the most composure, and as the match wound down to a close, the Blue Devils were up a man and in control, mentally and physically.
“We needed to make sure that we didn't get [our] emotions away from us because they're a physical team, they're going to compete, we knew that was coming,” Kerr said.
As a result of one Orange foul that brought Bjornsson down just outside the box, Pariano slotted a free kick under the Syracuse wall and into the back of the net, extending Duke’s lead to 4-2.
“It's hard when you're that close to get up and over the wall,” Pariano said. “There was something we had covered before the match that was a possibility for a free kick in and around the box, so I gave it a go.”
Given freedom by Kerr to play all over the pitch, Pariano was Duke’s backbone all night long. With two goals and numerous tackles and interceptions, Pariano led the Blue Devil midfield on both ends.
“I told [Pariano] at halftime ‘that's the best I've ever seen you play,’” Kerr said. “He led by example and we followed suit.”
Trading goals in the last 15 minutes, Duke was able to hold off a talented Syracuse team and come out of the match with a victory. The high-scoring result was needed for the Blue Devils, especially coming off of a two-game ACC skid. Duke now will travel to South Bend, Ind. to play Notre Dame this coming Saturday.
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