The scene is set: it is a 0-0 draw in the 61st minute. Duke wants to escape what has been a rollercoaster of a game against Pittsburgh with at least a tie, but the Panthers have brought the ball downfield and are playing it out of the corner. The low cross comes in and rests at the feet of forward Louis Sahmkow, who fires on net. Julian Eyestone, the Blue Devils’ goalkeeper, splays out to make an impressive quick save.
The ball pops back out in front of the net. The danger has not quite ended yet. It ends up across the box with another Pittsburgh attacker, who shoots again. Seemingly out of nowhere, here comes Eyestone. He leaps across the net and blocks the ball, clearing the danger with an impressive pair of saves. After the play, he accepts congratulations and high-fives from teammates before readying himself for the next attack. The Blue Devils leave Pennsylvania with a 0-0 result, and win their final two games by a combined margin of 14-1.
Eyestone is a tall guy, the tallest on the roster. Listed at 6-foot-6, his build indicates he might be better cut out for the basketball team than the soccer squad, for which he has started every game this year as keeper. But despite his looming frame, Eyestone has gravitated towards soccer from a very young age.
“Growing up, it was always my first sport. I have pictures of myself wearing jerseys, a little kid kicking the ball around in the backyard since I could walk, even before that,” Eyestone told The Chronicle. “Walking around, first steps carrying around a little inflatable soccer ball. It's always kind of been my DNA.”
Not only does he physically command attention on the field, but his vocal presence as a leader is very much felt, too. He manages to simultaneously appear energetic and composed, loudly barking orders to his teammates on both set pieces and in open play. From the outside, one could easily assume that the Dallas native is a veteran player — someone who has been with the team for several years and has become a leader by way of his experience with the college game.
It might surprise a spectator, then, to learn that Julian Eyestone is just a 17-year-old freshman. He has, in fact, not seen years of Division I soccer. Despite that, he knows the importance of being vocal and present on the field. This year was his first playing in not just the ACC postseason, but in fact any college playoff. The stakes of the upcoming games will be arguably the highest he has seen thus far in his career, college or not.
All that said, it certainly helps that the netminder has plenty of experience in the upper levels of the game. He played for several years in the MLS NEXT development system for North Texas SC, the second team in the FC Dallas organization. As he has continued to grow as a player, he has been rewarded. Eyestone has been practicing on-and-off with Dallas’ first team since he was just 15. Additionally, he was named to the 2023 NEXT All-Star team, receiving even more recognition as one of the best young players in the country. Despite all the accolades and first-team practice, the cherry on top for Eyestone was when he was called up to the US U17 national team and got the chance to represent his country on the international stage.
“I got my first camp call up in November of 2021. It was the first camp of this U17 cycle. Obviously, emotions, it's like a dream come true. That's one goal that I've had for a long time,” Eyestone said. “When I got the email, the invitation for the camp, it was obviously a huge deal for my family. We've really put a lot of things in this. We sacrificed a lot. So for that to come back and pay off in that way was really huge.”
Despite all the hype around his prospects as a keeper, Eyestone wanted to take the safer route. Rather than choosing to push more directly through the MLS system, he decided to take a few years to at least start a college education. Duke felt like the ideal fit for him and his family, given the high priority the university places on both education and athletics.
“My family is very big on college, my parents and I both were very keen on getting an education,” Eyestone said. “It's a very big part of our philosophy about life, and I enjoy the idea that I get to push myself more in all sorts of areas of my life. I like the idea of pushing myself to become the best person that I am. And somewhere like Duke is the best balance between sports and school. So this was like the dream come true.”
Even with his experience in the youth development system and with the national team, the college game is still a step up. Players move faster, shoot harder and the margin for error is even slimmer. Every save is just that much harder to make. The difficulty of the ACC, likely the strongest conference in college soccer, has made the jump tougher, too.
“Everybody wants to come beat Duke. So, not only are we in probably the hardest conference, we also get every single team's best game just because they're always up for it, they're always ready to play,” Eyestone said. “So I think that the level has definitely been a step up.”
Looking at the numbers, Eyestone has made the adjustment in a remarkably smooth fashion. He was named as the ninth-best freshman in the nation in Topdrawersoccer.com’s midseason ranking, and has been a defensive anchor for a Duke team that relies on him to make important saves in key moments of the game. He has posted a save percentage of .688 on the year, averaging just 1.16 goals against.
Big shoes to fill
It should also be noted that Eyestone in his first year took over the position of former Blue Devil keeper Eliot Hamill. Hamill was not only one of the better goalies in program history, but also a vocal leader. He was known as a guy who would stick up for his teammates, sparring with referees and opposing players alike. While Eyestone might not have such a confrontational approach to leadership, he has been perfectly confident in barking orders and taking control of the game when he needs to.
“I know what type of goalkeeper Eliot was,” Eyestone said. “And I know that he had that unbelievable presence. So it's been raising the question of, ‘how can I get to that place? How can I be like Eliot?’ Because that was something that made him so special.”
The pressure to grow into his leadership role is also something that native Texan is viewing as a benefit. In a sense, it has forced him into a position where he previously had been uncomfortable. There really is no option for him to stay quiet and let other teammates control the field.
“Back home, obviously, being a goalkeeper, you have to have a presence. But here you got to double it. You got to try even harder, you got to be even louder,” Eyestone said. “You got to be screaming the whole game. You got to be on top of everything. So it's been really good. It's been a great learning opportunity, for sure.”
The big picture
It remains to be seen whether or not Eyestone will finish out his college career. The MLS is reportedly considering an expansion of eligibility for its SuperDraft, which would allow college players to declare for the draft as early as their sophomore year. His reclassification still means the Blue Devils would have him next year, but his status beyond that will be up in the air. Right now, he is just focused on the arduous day-by-day process of self-improvement.
When asked about where he sees himself in a few years, Eyestone had this to say:
“I know that I have so much more to learn. I have so much that I can improve and just become better at. It's kind of wherever I end up, if I can kind of max out all of my potential and really just give it everything, then whatever it is, I'll be happy at the end of the day.”
In the meantime, the keeper and the rest of his team have all sights on the postseason, even if the first of two opportunities for a title — the ACC tournament — is now behind them.
“I think that we have the team, the quality to do it,” Eyestone said. “It's up to us now to go out there and get it.”
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