Duke and South Bend, Ind., are rarely a compatible pair.
On Saturday night, a scruffy contest between No. 14 Duke and the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish at Alumni Soccer Stadium would see flaring tensions and unfulfilled scoring opportunities, with ACC Coastal rivals Notre Dame emerging victorious 1-0 when all was said and done.
“They very rarely beat themselves,” said Duke head coach John Kerr after the match. “They made it difficult for us.”
The lone notch on the score sheet was a 13th-minute screamer from Notre Dame midfielder Ethan O’Brien — a volley from well beyond the 18-yard box with eyes for the top left corner.
“Their goal was a wonder goal,” Kerr said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever hit another goal like that in his life.”
And a wonder goal it was. Duke goalkeeper Julian Eyestone could do nothing but watch as the ball went past his outstretched arm, and the Blue Devils (6-3-1, 2-3 in the ACC) would ultimately be unable to grab that elusive equalizer.
Duke’s best chances came in the final five minutes of the game, where the team made things interesting with some well-executed set pieces.
A corner kick in the 85th minute saw Blue Devil defender Kamran Acito slam a header right at keeper Bryan Dowd, with forward Forster Ajago pushing the rebound wide right. Two minutes later, a set piece taken by midfielder Nick Pariano hung just a bit too long, clanging off the crossbar in what was likely the squad’s best effort of the night. It wasn’t in the cards, however, and the iron wall that was the Fighting Irish (7-1-3, 4-0-1) defense would not relent.
“I thought we were at least going to get a tie out of it down the stretch because we were really knocking on the door,” said Kerr of this final push.
Stymied by Notre Dame’s seemingly impenetrable backline, Duke grew visibly frustrated as the minutes began to dwindle. This frustration would manifest itself in the form of 20 fouls and four yellow cards for the Blue Devils, with increasing frequency as the game progressed. There was a certain tension about the second half, with more physicality than was expected based on the first 45 minutes. This tension would eventually boil over with Notre Dame defender Paddy Burns giving Ajago a bear hug after the final whistle, resulting in a bench-clearing scuffle to ring in Duke’s defeat.
There was certainly no shortage of offensive opportunity for the Blue Devils throughout the game, despite the final result. Virtually undeterred after conceding, Duke restarted quickly and began pressuring the Irish’s defense. A great service from midfielder Ruben Mesalles fell to forward Ulfur Bjornsson in the box, forcing a strong save out of Dowd. This type of sequence was common in the match, with the Blue Devils registering a hefty 13 shots on the night. Mesalles would remain an axis for Duke’s attack, with some of the squad’s best chances resulting from his distribution and quick thinking.
“We were coming close, we just missed them by inches,” Kerr said.
On the other end of the pitch, it was a standout performance from Eyestone. The freshman goalkeeper used his imposing frame to keep the Blue Devils in the game, placing the outcome in question all the way until the final whistle.
Following a sloppy turnover from a defender in the box, Eyestone shut down a golden opportunity from Burns to close out the first half. Then, mere minutes into the second half, the goalscorer O’Brien sent a curling free kick in from the left side of the box, a bullet toward the top bin. Using every inch of his 6-foot-6 frame, Eyestone turned the ball away with a strong hand — a truly spectacular save to keep Duke alive. Without his four saves, the result could have been a lot uglier.
“He made sure that we still had a chance down the stretch,” Kerr said of Eyestone. “He’s maturing by the minute.”
Hoping to return to winning ways with only five fixtures remaining, the Blue Devils will return to Koskinen Stadium where they will face Elon Tuesday.
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