Duke men's soccer faces first big test from No. 5 Virginia

<p>Sophomore defender Markus Fjørtoft and the Blue Devil back line have been stingy early in the season, surrendering just four goals after allowing an ACC-worst 34 in 2014.</p>

Sophomore defender Markus Fjørtoft and the Blue Devil back line have been stingy early in the season, surrendering just four goals after allowing an ACC-worst 34 in 2014.

This is the moment the Blue Devils have been waiting for.

Duke is off to its best start to a campaign in six years, winning its first four games of the season for the first time since 2009. Now, the Blue Devils face their toughest test yet, taking on reigning national champion No. 5 Virginia at Koskinen Stadium Friday at 7 p.m. With a win, Duke could potentially hoist itself into the top 25.

“Virginia is going to be a much tougher opponent than we’ve played so far,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “It’s going to be a great test for us. We’re going to be at home so there should be a big crowd. We’re very excited about the opportunity.”

The Blue Devils (4-0) are coming off a decisive 5-1 home win against Loyola Tuesday night. Sophomore Jeremy Ebobisse—who leads Duke with four goals and two assists—opened the floodgates against the Greyhounds in the 20th minute by finishing a cross from senior Ryan Thompson.

Four Blue Devils—including freshman Ciaran McKenna and sophomores Cameron Moseley, Brian White and Macario Hing-Glover—scored their first goals of the season Tuesday night to round out Duke’s balanced offensive efforts. The depth displayed by the Blue Devils’ front line helps to ease concerns about Duke’s ability to convert on attacking opportunities that surfaced in the first few games of the season.

“[Tuesday] gave us a game where we could really get on the ball and try to improve our offense, and I thought we did that,” Kerr said. “Our offense was firing on all cylinders in the first 15-20 minutes and that was nice to see. I’m happy with the progress.”

The Blue Devils have maintained their unwavering dominance on the defensive end throughout nonconference play. Duke has held opponents to an average of 8.5 shots and 5.8 corner kicks per game through the four contests and has let up just four goals.

When juxtaposed with the young back line that allowed a conference-high 34 goals in 2014, this year’s defensive effort—led by sophomores Markus Fjørtoft and Kevon Black and graduate transfers Jared Rist and Tyler Hilliard—mark an exceptionally quick turnaround in terms of consistency.

“Relatively [speaking], we did a great job defensively [Tuesday],” Kerr said. “[Defense] is a mentality, and we’ve improved our mentality greatly and we’ve matured. We’re gaining momentum and we’re gaining confidence. We feel that we can be in any game against any team in the country.”

The Cavaliers (2-0-1) have yet to falter this season. They started the year with a 1-0 win against Charlotte but could not pull out a victory against Tulsa at home—after playing two overtime periods, the contest concluded in a 1-1 draw. Virginia rallied Tuesday night to notch a 2-1 win against George Mason.

Duke’s challenge Friday night will be in navigating Virginia’s stout defense. The Cavaliers’ back line has allowed an average of 12.3 shots and 5.3 corner kicks per game through its three matches, and Virginia’s opponents have only managed to get two shots past sophomore goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell. Thus far, the Cavaliers’ offensive production has been evenly split between juniors Riggs Lennon and Nicko Corriveau, with each player netting a pair of scores.

“This will be a great first test for us in the ACC against Virginia,” Kerr said. “From what we’ve seen this season so far, they are continuing their defensive approach of protecting their final third. Our biggest concern is to try to understand how to break them down but also realizing that they have speed and that they are going to try to hit us on the counter-attack.”

The Blue Devils are not strangers to major upsets. Just last season, Duke defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina 2-1 after falling behind 1-0 in the first half. After beating each opponent they have faced thus far this season and most recently routing Loyola, the Blue Devils have the confidence and the momentum necessary to pull off a similar heist against the defending national champions.

Following Friday’s highly anticipated matchup, Duke will conclude its long stretch of home games Tuesday at 7 p.m. as it hosts UNC Wilmington. The Blue Devils will then hit the road to challenge No. 9 Clemson Sept. 18.


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