Soccer is a strange game. Teams play a full 90 minutes against each other, but sometimes a goal just is not in the cards. Such was the case in Pittsburgh Saturday evening, as Duke and the Panthers exchanged several quality offensive opportunities but ultimately played to a 0-0 draw.
“I told the boys how proud I was of them today, because sometimes things don't go your way,” said head coach John Kerr after the game. “But you fought incredibly hard as a high level soccer game in terms of physicality, intensity, mentality and skill.”
The ninth-ranked Blue Devils (8-3-2, 3-3-1 in the ACC) appeared to control the run of play early, resulting in the first high-quality opportunity being a cross into the box for senior Antino Lopez, who was looking to score his second goal in two games. Unfortunately for Duke, the ball sailed harmlessly over the crossbar. The attack continued through the first half, as the Blue Devils sent the ball into the box on through-balls and set pieces. No. 23 Pittsburgh (6-4-4, 2-2-3) came back in the other direction with some opportunities on the counterattack, but despite the quality chances, the score remained nil-nil at the end of the first 45 minutes.
At halftime, Duke seemed to be in a similar position that this team often finds itself in after one period. The Blue Devils held a 3-0 advantage in shots on goal, and 6-2 in overall shots. The 0-0 score was of no concern for a team that is 7-0 in games where it is tied or ahead at halftime.
The Panthers came out in the second half with a little more energy. Duke was pushed back onto its heels, as Pittsburgh came forward with several consecutive quality chances. Those chances culminated in a fast break opportunity, where freshman goalkeeper Julian Eyestone continued what has been nothing short of stellar play all season with two incredible saves.
He first went to ground, stopping a short ball with his legs in an impressive, sprawling kick save. When it popped back out, Eyestone made a leaping stop at short-range to put an end to the second of two back-to-back chances. In a game where both teams had lots of good opportunities to put one in the back of the net, the young Dallas native kept a level head and maintained the shutout. His poise and confidence in the net is impressive, especially for a 17-year-old freshman.
“He's mature beyond his years. He doesn't panic. He understands what he's doing and has gotten a lot better in the short space of time,” said Kerr of Eyestone.
The two teams continued to exchange opportunities, to limited success. Graduate student forward Forster Ajago, who leads the team in goals, was noticeably not as present in this game. The Panthers did a good job defending and limiting the set piece opportunities that the Blue Devils have utilized to generate chances all year. Duke had just two corner kicks on Saturday, compared to a whopping 14 against N.C. State earlier in the week.
The final true chance for the Blue Devils came with five minutes left in the game, when freshman forward Bull Jorgensen managed to sneak in and steal the ball away from Pittsburgh on a sloppy short pass inside the penalty area. Despite the proximity to the net, the Panthers' keeper Cabral Carter managed to clean up his own mess, falling on top of the ball to prevent the late go-ahead goal.
While the outcome maybe was not ideal for a Duke team that no longer controls its own destiny in terms of a playoff bye, its head coach seemed content with the result at the end of the game.
“I was on the edge of my seat the whole game, so [I] thoroughly enjoyed how our team played against a really quality team in Pitt,” said Kerr, “Helps us gain some confidence as we go down the stretch.”
The Blue Devils are down to their last few games in the regular season as the ACC playoffs rapidly approach. Howard will come to town on Tuesday, before Virginia Tech makes the trip to Durham Friday to end the regular season. After that, the postseason begins.
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