After notching six goals against N.C. State en route to their first conference win Friday, the Blue Devils will look to continue their newfound offensive efficiency into the final four games of the regular season.
Duke will take its home field against No. 11 Elon Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium. After a stretch in which the Blue Devils won just one of eight games, the win against the Wolfpack allows Duke to take the field with a heavy weight off its back.
“The N.C. State game was huge,” graduate student Jared Rist said. “That game was definitely one where your season can go either direction. That was huge to get us back on track.”
Senior captain Zach Mathers led the Blue Devils (6-6-2) with three goals and one assist in Friday’s 6-2 rout. It was the first hat trick by a Blue Devil since Andrew Wenger scored three—coincidentally also against the Wolfpack—in 2011. The performance was good enough for Mathers to make the College Soccer News National Team of the Week—the first Blue Devil to be featured on the list this season.
“When Chachi [a nickname for Mathers] is in the mood and when he’s playing well, our team really, really operates in the right direction,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “He is an integral member of this team—he’s the captain, he’s our leader. From an offensive standpoint, he’s crucial to our success. When he’s on, we’re on.”
If Duke is to start a winning streak Tuesday night, Mathers and the rest of the squad will have to be on their game. The Phoenix (12-2-0) are ranked No. 13 in the RPI—a computerized index of team strength that accounts for results, opponent strength and goal differential, among other factors.
As the end of the season approaches, Duke must turn its eyes to a possible at-large postseason berth. Kerr has spent the past four years on the NCAA tournament selection committee and understands that RPI plays a large part in the difference between receiving a berth and watching the entire tournament at home. For the Blue Devils to increase their RPI to make a compelling case to qualify for the tournament, Tuesday’s game is almost a must-win.
“In terms of tournament selection to get an at-large bid, this is a huge game because their RPI is so high,” Kerr said. “We know that if we want to be up there in getting an at-large bid, this game is crucial tomorrow because the rest of our games—the teams’ RPIs are not as high.”
Elon is ranked highly by the computers for good reason. The Phoenix have relied on a dominant midfield, averaging 2.1 goals per game as a team. In the center of the pitch, the senior trio of James Brace, Eduardo Alvarez and Miguel Salazar have led the way. Brace leads the team with 13 points, Alvarez ranks second with 12 and Salazar—who earned first-team All-CAA honors in 2014—has chipped in an assist.
In addition to this attacking trio, the Phoenix have added new talent to an already-skilled squad. Freshman Jaiden Fortune has served as a super sub, tallying four goals and four assists despite starting just one match. Cooper Vandermas-Peeler—a former member of the United States U18 national team—transferred from North Carolina after his junior season to use his final year of eligibility at Elon.
“They have some good attacking players from all angles up front and out wide,” Kerr said. “They have two really talented midfielders who hurt us a great deal last year, so we’ll have to take of those two guys in the middle, [Alvarez] and [Salazar].... They’re very disciplined, so if we’re not careful on the ball and we don’t keep possession well in the midfield they can really hurt us on the counterattack.”
With the attacking talent of the Phoenix, Duke will have to focus on possession and controlling the ball in the middle and the back. Last season, Elon beat the Blue Devils 2-1 for the first time in the teams’ shared history. Duke will be searching for revenge Tuesday night.
“It’s definitely going to be a different game from last year,” Rist said. “We have them at home and we have played really well against good teams this year. I definitely think the boys are ready.”