Soccer, with all its strategic demands, is a cerebral game. So the Blue Devils used their heads to win this match.
It was time, again, for a midweek game. On Tuesday night, No. 15 Duke took on Elon at home at Koskinen Stadium, where the Blue Devils definitively shut out the Phoenix 3-0. The game invited many of Duke’s usual ploys while also introducing some rare talent to the field.
“We just had to keep patient and keep disciplined and make sure we took care of business in the second half,” said head coach John Kerr after the match.
Lying on his back, sophomore Drew Kerr put his hands in the air so his teammate could pull him off the ground. He couldn’t have seen the ball that had just bounced off his brutal header to land squarely in Elon’s net — at the expense of his standing upright — but he could probably tell from the cheers by the home crowd that he had just scored his second career goal.
That header was Duke’s closer, sealing a 3-0 victory for the home team with just under 14 minutes left to play. Like in so many other Blue Devil soccer matches, the late goal was part of a back-to-back scoring spree that blossomed right as the match began to turn bleak for Duke (7-3-1, 2-3 in the ACC). It started, predictably, with a crowd-pleasing spectacle, compliments of graduate striker Forster Ajago.
The Navrongo, Ghana, native has a thing about his goals. They often contain a shock factor.
“That was a big goal for us — getting that first goal was huge,” Coach Kerr said. A typical finish by him. It was beautiful timing and a brave header. And it gave us a big lift.”
The Phoenix (1-7-3, 0-3-2 CAA) kept Duke quiet for 60 minutes, holding off the Blue Devils from any sort of productivity for a long, daunting two-thirds of the match. The most exciting moments of these goal-free minutes came with the flash of yellow cards, dealt out generously on both ends of the pitch. None of them, however, changed the 0-0 glare on the scoreboard.
Finally, the usual suspects came together to make a case. Senior midfielder Nick Pariano and junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles coupled together behind a free kick ball, quietly conferring before the latter sent it flying at Ajago. The Dayton transfer had his forehead at the ready: He jutted a header off the curved assist from Mesalles well out of Elon goalkeeper Tomas Wrobleski’s reach. Moments later, Ajago was kissing the grass as his teammates broke into celebration around him.
“He's such a force,” Kerr said.
Once their go-to goal guy had broken the silence, the Blue Devils turned up the volume all over the field. A minute and a half later, goal number two sank into the net, this time off the right foot of senior midfielder Luke Thomas — his first goal of the season and fourth of his career. It happened less than a minute after Kerr subbed him into the game.
Pariano’s foot was found at the scene once again, this time tallying the assist.
Familiar names decorated the score sheet in this match, but Tuesday night, they had some different company. In fact, two of Duke’s three goals came from players who haven’t seen the field as much this season, as did much of the team’s production. For the first time since 2021 — restricted by an injury that kept him out for all of the 2022 season — senior defender Lewis McGarvey took to the pitch. The Belfast, Northern Ireland, native, wearing a bright green captain’s armband, took care of the ball on the back third of the field to ensure that Elon’s side of the scoreboard remained empty.
“That guy has been working every single day, two hours a day at full pace without hesitation,” Kerr said of McGarvey. “To come back after that long and do so well tonight, as well — everybody was happy for him. And it's great to see a smile on his face.”
Drew Kerr’s goal, which came 15 minutes later, hit the Elon net off the sophomore’s head. Really, though, it came from the spurt of collective Blue Devil energy garnered by the enthusiasm of a team that was firing on all cylinders — an adrenaline rush exacerbated by the wait it suffered through. That enthusiasm was clear all over the field when Duke celebrated its win, truly one shared between every member of the team.
“Some guys really impressed us. They may be ready for a little bit more time as we move forward,” Coach Kerr said.
The best trick Elon had up its garnet sleeves was speed. Unranked and with just one win to its name for the season, the Phoenix perhaps couldn’t keep up with the Blue Devils’ control with the ball, but they ran hard.
Duke waited to outrun Elon until Ajago’s header spurred it into action. Only then did it put the game away.
An hour beforehand, the ball at the feet of a neon-clad Elon goalkeeper, the Blue Devils jogged to defend their side of the field with heads down, looks of dejection clear from the stands. With one minute to go in the first half and not a notch on either side of the scoreboard, all Duke could do was defend its home turf. That, at least, the Blue Devils did: Neither the penalty kick nor the corner granted to Elon in the last 19 seconds before the break made any difference for the Phoenix.
“Throughout the first half, we were on top of the game,” Thomas said. “And had a lot of possession … but we just couldn't quite break through.”
Duke next hits the field Friday at 7 p.m. for a home matchup against N.C. State.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.