It felt like a high-school homecoming: Bright stadium lights on a Friday night, stands packed with parents and classmates, rowdy cheers echoing across the bleachers. A big rival school from out of town — welcome back, ACC soccer — and exciting bursts of energy from the players on the field perfected the illusion of a classic hometown showdown.
Under those Friday-night lights, No. 10 Duke welcomed a visiting Virginia team to Koskinen Stadium to kick off conference competition in style. The Blue Devils sent the Cavaliers packing following an uninterrupted 2-0 victory characterized by the most energetic soccer Duke has played all year.
“It was a tough game,” said freshman forward Ulfur Bjornsson said following the match. “But we showed up to it. And we got good goals, took our chances and closed them out. So I’m happy.”
With the exception of just one of their six goals against Furman, the Blue Devils (4-0-1, 1-0 in the ACC) had not scored in the first half of any game this season — until Friday night. Just under 26 minutes into the match, Bjornsson broke the curse. Taut with anticipation, the Blue Devil faithful looked on as the Iceland native followed a ball that had slipped behind Virginia goalkeeper Holden Brown and pushed it forcefully into the back right corner of the net.
This would mark Bjornsson’s second career goal, following directly after his first against Princeton Monday night.
“The group we have here is an amazing group of guys, welcoming … to me and all the freshmen,” Bjornsson said. “So it took a little bit of time to adjust but I think it's all coming along.”
The minutes that led up to the rookie striker’s moment of fame were just as charged as the goal itself. From the get-go, Duke was energized; so was Virginia (3-2, 0-1 ACC). The two teams shared the ball almost evenly: Virginia held onto possession for 51% of the game, Duke for the other 49. The Cavaliers tallied 12 fouls and the Blue Devils picked up nine — as well as a yellow card.
This was not the same way Duke took on Wofford or Princeton: With the return of conference competition, this game seemed more physical than those preceding it.
“I'm enjoying the young new players and the older new players — and established players are doing great,” said head coach John Kerr. “The backline had a great game. They had to, because we were under pressure for a long period. And they did great, all of them.”
That’s how Bjornsson ended up with the ball right in line with a wide-open net: a tough, all-around team effort played by Blue Devils.
Though there was certainly an element of stardom on the pitch. It wasn’t a one-and-done night for Bjornsson — in the second half, he stayed right in the thick of the action, adding an assist to his stat box for the first time. This pass was the spark that ignited a soaring, David Beckham-like bender from junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles, which flew out of Brown’s reach to double Duke’s score as it settled neatly into the top left of the net. The Blue Devils would shirk their second-half duties just because of their early point.
Mesalles’ goal — like Bjornsson’s assist — did not come out of nowhere. A versatile athlete, the IMG Academy product decided from minute zero that this would be his game. He hung around Duke’s back third for a sizable part of the match, teaming up with freshman goalkeeper Julian Eyestone to keep Cavalier shots out of the box. Early on, Mesalles got right in the line of fire with a quick-footed save that stopped Virginia from a good shot at inhibiting the Blue Devils’ shutout streak.
Despite his key role on Duke’s defensive line, the Sarasota, Fla., native saw no need to hold back from a strike of his own. He made a thoughtful, calculated move that rightfully earned him his second goal of the season.
“He’s a guy that can defend,” Kerr said of Mesalles. “But his composure going forward, and his distribution with that left foot of his is really top notch.”
The outlook was not stellar for the Cavaliers after Mesalles’ goal, who struggled under the disadvantage. On top of that, they had lost a player to a twisted knee right as the second half got going — a misfortune that not only removed one of their more powerful sophomore players in Triton Beauvois, but also cost them the rhythm they had carried to match Duke’s for the beginning 45 minutes.
Closing minutes ticked by, and the Blue Devils were looking to turn their night into a triple-header. At the helm of every scoring attempt was Bjornsson, who seemed to have found his firepower on the field after taking a couple of games to adjust to American turf. It was a fitting adjustment to make on a night so reminiscent of homey high-school soccer games.
“It was a big win for us. Opening night in the ACC, getting another shutout and playing well for good portions of the game,” Kerr said.
Duke looks to bigger conference challenges next: The team will travel to Clemson, S.C., to take on the only ACC challenger that beat it last season at 7 p.m. this coming Friday.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.