Duke men's soccer opens season with Saint Mary's, DePaul at John Rennie Nike Invitational

<p>Senior captain Zach Mathers and the Blue Devils will open their home slate Friday with a contest against Saint Mary’s at the John Rennie Nike Invitational.</p>

Senior captain Zach Mathers and the Blue Devils will open their home slate Friday with a contest against Saint Mary’s at the John Rennie Nike Invitational.

With a successful preseason behind them, the Blue Devils will look to start its regular season off on the right foot at the John Rennie Nike Invitational.

Duke will take on Saint Mary’s in the first day of the tournament at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Koskinen Stadium before taking on DePaul Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Duke is coming off a win against the College of Charleston in its first exhibition game and a tie in a heated contest with No. 17 UNC Charlotte to close out exhibition play.

“We’re doing a good job,” head coach John Kerr said. “Getting our spacing, our roles and our tactics right has been a focal point of the preseason. We have some maturity that has shown early on.”

Friday’s matchup will serve as the official homecoming for the many returning players on Kerr’s roster, but six Blue Devils will play at the newly-renovated Koskinen Stadium for the first time. After posting a 9-9-1 record in 2014 and missing the postseason for the third straight season, Duke is desperate to start the season on the right note. Last season’s leading scorer, junior forward Brody Huitema, will look to lead the offense and best his 15 points from last year. Two-time All-ACC choice and captain Zach Mathers will help ground a young roster through the midfield in his senior campaign after completing a summer with the Carolina Railhawks organization.

Kerr’s six newcomers include three transfers and three freshmen from abroad. Defender Jared Rist—a graduate transfer from Georgetown—will help reinforce Duke’s depleted defense that allowed a league-worst 34 goals last year. Tyler Hilliard—who has been sidelined due to injury during preseason play—will bring his four years of experience from ACC foe Syracuse to improve the defensive unit as well. Mitch Kupstas—who graduated from Brown—is vying for the starting spot between the posts amidst a deep goalkeeping roster.

Freshmen Ciaran McKenna and Oliver Spring should make an immediate impact after impressing during preseason exhibition games, but midfielder Torbjørn Alseth will not see the field initially after sustaining a foot fracture before arriving on campus.

“I’ve been pleased with many parts of [preseason play], especially defensively,” Kerr said. “We leaked so many goals last year...and that sticks in my head that we have to do a lot better job if we want to play postseason soccer.”

The Gaels will prove to be a difficult first test for the Blue Devils after coming off a 12-5-2 record last season. Saint Mary’s defeated No. 16 California last weekend in an exhibition game on the road. Like the Blue Devils, the Gaels are a veteran squad, returning 18 players from last season’s roster—including eight starters.

Saint Mary’s boasts a number of accomplished returnees to its starting lineup. Huitema and the rest of Duke’s offensive line will need to be creative in getting past junior defenders Alex Braman and Rafael Sanchez. Both received first team All-WCC honors last season and were selected to the preseason all-league team this year. The Gaels also have one of the top professional goalkeeper prospects in last summer’s Premier Development League in senior Lucas Champenois.

“We’re always open to adjusting if need be,” Kerr said. “[Sometimes] we need to take advantage of a situation or we need to cope with a situation. Those are adjustments we make once the season starts and we determine who our opponents are.”

Although the Blue Devils will have to navigate through the Gaels’ stout and experienced defense, they will face a very different challenge in taking on the Blue Demons just two days later. DePaul boasts a fresh and revitalized offense thanks to its incoming freshman class—including John Freitag and Jake Scheper, rookies who have already contributed to DePaul’s success in the preseason, with each notching a goal and Freitag assisting on Scheper’s score.

The Blue Demons won both of their preseason exhibition games and have early momentum to challenge Duke. They opened exhibition play with a come-from-behind victory against Western Illinois, then posted a decisive 3-1 win against Green Bay to close out the preseason. Despite this early success, the Blue Demons are pegged to finish last in their conference according to the Big East preseason coaches poll.

Duke has the opportunity to best its 1-0-1 record in the tournament from last season, when it took on Loyola Marymount and Stetson, but has not notched two wins in its home tournament since 2009. A tournament victory in Durham could be just the spark Duke needs to kick off a campaign to reclaim its status as an ACC contender.

After the John Rennie Nike Invitational, the Blue Devils will host Iona Sept. 5 and Loyola Sept. 8 before kicking off conference play against defending national champion No. 2 Virginia.

Alex Serebransky and Brian Pollack contributed reporting.


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