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Duke men's soccer aims for 4-0 start against Loyola

<p>Sophomore Markus Fjørtoft has led the charge for a much-improved Blue Devil defense that has carried the team to a 3-0 start this season.</p>

Sophomore Markus Fjørtoft has led the charge for a much-improved Blue Devil defense that has carried the team to a 3-0 start this season.

After winning its first three games of the season, Duke will look to match its best start to a campaign since 2009.

The Blue Devils will face Loyola Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium as they look to continue their early-season momentum in their final tune-up before conference play begins later in the week. Saturday’s victory against Iona gave Duke three wins in as many tries to open the season, and the Blue Devils will have to rebound quickly if they hope to go 4-0 for the first time in six years.

“It is a quicker turnaround than we normally have,” senior midfielder Zach Mathers said. “But I know that we’re going to bounce back. We’re high on confidence right now.... We’ll be ready.”

Duke (3-0) may be perfect so far this season, but the Greyhounds (0-2-1) have not gotten off to a strong start, as they have failed to record a win in their first three games, earning a draw in their first contest Saint Francis before dropping their next two matches to Old Dominion and La Salle.

Loyola lost its top two goal scorers from last season in Joseph Calahan and Connor Thompson, and their absence has been felt—the Greyhounds have failed to find the back of the net so far through their first three games.

This is not good news for a Loyola squad facing a Duke defense that is much improved from last season. After conceding a conference-high 34 goals in 2014, the Blue Devils have allowed just three goals thus far this season and seem much more confident in the back line.

The centerback pairing of graduate student Tyler Hilliard and sophomore Markus Fjørtoft have been a big reason for the defense’s success so far.

“We’ve got some experience,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “Tyler Hilliard is a great defender and has great experience for us. He’s doing a lot of good things back there... [He] cleans up a lot of things for us if we do make a mistake positionally. Markus [Fjørtoft] is killing [it] in the air. He’s dominating back there and doing a great job.”

Duke will hope it can keep Loyola’s goalless streak going and record its second clean sheet of the season.

Although the defense seems to be clicking early, there is still room for improvement on the offensive side of the ball. As the team is still adjusting to having new faces in new spots on the field, its offensive execution has not been quite as crisp as it could be.

“I think the biggest thing is speed of play,” Kerr said. “Especially early in the game, when we’re too slow getting the ball to the next guy and if we can speed it up a little bit quicker, we’ll be a lot more dangerous.”

In addition to increasing their tempo on the ball, another area where the Blue Devils will look to improve upon is their efficiency in front of the goal. Against Iona, Duke was able to garner 13 shots on target, but was unable to score from free-flowing play—only finding the net from corner kicks.

The Blue Devils may be able to get away with not converting quality chances against lesser teams, but as conference play quickly approaches, they will need to be more prolific at putting the ball in the back of the net. Kerr said he does not seem too concerned about the team’s missed opportunities so far.

“Soccer’s like that,” Kerr said. “We’re creating opportunities, we [have] just got to get that final pass.”

If Duke can find that rhythm in the midfield, convert more of its chances in front of the net and still maintain its strong defensive performances, the team should be full of momentum heading into its ACC opener Friday against No. 2 Virginia at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium.

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