Some guys are nearly unstoppable. Elon senior Chris Thomas—the most productive offensive threat in Division I soccer—is one of those guys.
Tuesday night at Koskinen Stadium, The Blue Devils (7-7-1) will need to contain Thomas and notch a critical win against the Phoenix (12-4-1) to stay in the running for a ninth-consecutive NCAA tournament berth. Duke and Elon have tied in their past two meetings.
“Moving forward, we have two more games. Two clean sheets and two wins are a must if we want to play postseason soccer,” senior goalkeeper James Belshaw said.
Thomas leads Division I with 20 goals this season, two more than the entire Blue Devil squad combined. Six of these goals have come against opponents that were ranked in the top 25 at the time of the match, a testament to the Georgia native’s ability to beat even the tightest defensive units in the country.
“He’s a very dangerous player,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “He’s someone who you have to keep your eye on all the time because he can come to life at any point in the game. His movement is great off the ball, and he’s obviously a great finisher.”
The importance of limiting Thomas’ looks at goal cannot be emphasized enough. This season, the Blue Devils have struggled to contain some of the nation’s most prolific forwards. Duke lost to Notre Dame, Santa Clara and Virginia, the only other teams on the Blue Devils’ schedule with players ranked in the top 20 in goals per game. The Fighting Irish’s Ryan Finley and the Cavaliers’ Will Bates notched game-winning tallies against Duke, and the Broncos’ Erik Hurtado kicked off Santa Clara’s comeback against the Blue Devils.
“This year [Chris] has come into better form, and he has more confidence,” Elon head coach Darren Powell said. “He has been able to finish the chances that have come his way. We hope that he can continue in the form he’s currently in.”
Due largely in part to Thomas’ nation-leading goal total, the Phoenix rank 12th in the country in scoring offense, averaging 2.2 goals per game. The Blue Devils have only played two teams—Maryland and Notre Dame—with more prolific offensive units. Despite losing both of those games, Duke’s stalwart back four held the Terrapins and the Fighting Irish to fewer goals than they average per game.
“When you score two, three goals in a game you have a high probability of winning the game, and that’s what we thrive on,” Thomas said. “Duke has a great defense. Hopefully we manage to break down the defense. It will be a tough game to put the ball in the back of the net.”
As the results of the Blue Devils’ contests against Maryland and Notre Dame demonstrate, slowing down high-powered offensive units is not enough to win. To pull off the upset against an Elon squad that has knocked down four top-25 opponents this season, Duke must convert on its scoring opportunities.
The Blue Devils have shown improvement in this area since their 1-0 loss to Boston College Oct. 19, capitalizing on their offensive chances in wins against Davidson and Virginia Tech last week. Continuing their recent success on the offensive end of the field will be the key to earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re getting more guys around the box and in and around dangerous areas,” Kerr said. “We’ve got two two-goal wins the past two matches so we feel good about that. We know we can compete with the best, and now we need to score by committee. There’s no one guy that’s going to get all the goals for us, but we know we can score from different places now.”