The independent news organization of Duke University

Ajago's brace helps No. 3 Duke men's soccer battle to draw against Wofford

With 12 minutes left to play in the first half, the Blue Devils were visibly incensed. Frustration emanated from every blue-clad player on the field as Duke fought to even the score following a triumphant, soaring goal from Wofford’s Nikolai Rojel.

While the sun set on Koskinen Stadium Thursday night, the third-ranked Blue Devils battled their way through a whiplash match against the visiting Terriers. Things went well for Wofford, who scored its first goals of the season against the home team in Durham. And though Duke eventually answered those goals, it did not manage to protect its early season winning streak, settling for a 2-2 draw.

“We didn’t have the best first half. We weren’t as sharp as we usually are,” said Duke head coach John Kerr. “I thought we played quite well in the second half, I thought we really dominated the game … it's still early in the season. We're still finding our way and finding out who can do what, when.”

Close, but no cigar. That’s the cliche that characterized Duke’s first half against the visiting Terriers — who, despite not making it into the national rankings, played a tough, consistent game that tested every Blue Devil limit. Duke (2-0-1) kept the ball close to Wofford’s net for the better part of the first half, but could not bargain entry into the goal at all. 

Even with significantly less time in control, the Terriers (0-2-1) snagged a goal at minute 31, managing to break through a Duke defense that was busy helping the midfield keep the ball on Wofford’s side of the field. It took 40 minutes for the Blue Devils to strike back.

The closest Duke got in the inaugural 15 minutes of the game came from graduate midfielder Cameron Kerr, who sliced a shot just a little too high over the net. Later, a sharp kick from graduate forward Forster Ajago veered on the wrong side of the left post, once again forfeiting an opportunity to score. And with six minutes left on the first-half clock — now under pressure of a one-goal deficit — freshman forward Bull Jorgensen kicked the ball right smack in line with the middle of the goal, only for it to fly into the hands of Wofford goalkeeper Cameron Victor.

“Midweek games, we want to take care of,” said senior midfielder Nick Pariano. “We didn’t do that tonight. There are positives from the game, but [we’re] overall frustrated to draw Wofford.”

Leading the charge for the home team was Pariano, whose small stature ricocheted back and forth across the field, providing his teammates with persistent energy — in true captain form — even as shot after shot failed to change the looming zero on Duke’s side of the scoreboard. 

“It's up to me and a lot of the attackers to create chances and score goals. And we did some of that tonight,” Pariano said. “But of course, we would like to do more, and get more goals, kind of capitalize on that time.”

Stalwart efforts from the Philadelphia native, backed by active defensive work from sophomore defender Kamran Acito and junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles, kept the Blue Devils in possession for 60% of the first half. There was no doubt that Duke’s offensive lineup knew how to take care of the ball; the question was rather if they knew how to put it away.

Twenty minutes into the second half, not much had changed for the Blue Devils. Though a defensive cohort led by senior Amir Daley — on a yellow card — was keeping the Terriers away from another goal, the visiting team still held the advantage. Those agonizing almosts were still the only thing rallying the Koskinen Stadium crowd. They followed, one after another: now a sharp shot from Ajago, now a promising curler from Kerr, but nothing landed.

Then, all of a sudden, Ajago was in the air. He found the ball just feet from the goal line, off a killer pass from senior midfielder Luke Thomas, and bicycle kicked it into the back of the net.

That long-awaited sigh of relief from the onlooking Blue Devil faithful broke out — for just a moment — before erupting into a rowdy chorus of “ole.” Somehow, Duke’s score had doubled. Once again, it was thanks to Ajago, this time off a handy assist from Pariano. Coming off his hat trick from the Blue Devils’ defeat of Furman, this would be the first time since October 2022 that a Duke player snagged more than one goal in back-to-back games.

“He's dangerous every time he gets around the box,” said coach Kerr of Ajago. “We're happy to have him … he's a joy to have around and works his tail off, day in and day out.”

Alas, just as Duke managed to get ahold of its offense enough to put numbers on the scoreboard, its defense stumbled. Rojel scored another one for the Terriers, launching a hard kick past freshman goalkeeper Julian Eyestone’s reaching hands and leveling the playing field again. The Southern Conference’s 2022 Freshman of the Year stepped up to match Ajago in the repeat goal, with this game now akin to a boxing match between two standout strikers.

Duke had numerous chances to turn the draw into a victory, but it couldn’t capitalize on any of them. In what looked like a gift of saving grace, sophomore midfielder Drew Kerr earned a free kick directly in line with the goal — and sent it soaring over the net. He wasn’t alone in lost chances, though, with 18 shots from the team as a whole.

“Guys went to class for the first time and then played the game afterwards, for the first time in their careers. That's something we have to adjust to quickly,” Pariano said. “But this is all a process. We have to figure some things out. It’s all part of feeling really good when the ACC comes around.”

Thursday’s match wasn’t a win. It was a difficult draw against a team the Blue Devils expected to dominate. But Duke is still undefeated, and it will have the chance to keep its record clean all season — starting with its first away game Monday at Princeton.

Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


Share and discuss “Ajago's brace helps No. 3 Duke men's soccer battle to draw against Wofford” on social media.