Must-win games continue for Duke men's soccer Saturday at Pittsburgh

<p>Sophomore Markus Fjørtoft and the Blue Devils have picked up two critical wins in as many matches but must keep the momentum going on the road Saturday night in the Steel City.</p>

Sophomore Markus Fjørtoft and the Blue Devils have picked up two critical wins in as many matches but must keep the momentum going on the road Saturday night in the Steel City.

The Blue Devils finally have a winning streak—and it came just in time.

After dropping two critical games earlier in the month, Duke rallied with back-to-back wins against then-No. 23 N.C. State and No. 10 Elon to keep its postseason aspirations alive. Now, the Blue Devils will look to extend that streak and capture their first road win of the season. Duke—which is on the brink of the playoff picture—will take on a Pittsburgh squad in a very similar position at Ambrose Urbanic Field Saturday Saturday at 7 p.m in Pittsburgh.

“[The Panthers] are fighting for their lives,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “They know this is their last opportunity to make the ACC tournament. It’s a massive game for us as well because we want to make sure we’re in the ACC tournament. A loss to Pitt would put us in jeopardy of missing the postseason.”

Although the Blue Devils (7-6-2, 1-4-1 in the ACC) have not had an issue with generating opportunities in front of the net—averaging 15.3 shots per game compared 11.8 for their opponents—they have consistently struggled to convert those opportunities into goals. Duke had only scored 23 goals through 13 matches, but in their last two contests, the Blue Devils have beaten the goalkeeper eight times—the same number of goals they totaled in the six games prior.

Six of those eight goals came in Duke’s rout of the Wolfpack Friday night. The decisive upset marked the Blue Devils’ first conference victory of the season, keyed by senior Zach Mathers' first career hat trick. On the other end of the pitch, the Duke defense was equally impressive, holding a dangerous Wolfpack attack to just two goals despite facing 17 shots.

The Blue Devils’ momentum carried over into Tuesday's 2-1 overtime victory against the Phoenix. Deadlocked after 90 minutes, the two sides headed to bonus soccer, where Duke broke through nine minutes into the extra session when junior Brody Huitema headed the ball just past Phoenix goalkeeper Matthew Jegier.

“[These wins] give us a great boost,” Kerr said. “They were massive wins for us in terms of the RPI, in terms of our standing in the ACC, and, most of all, in terms of our confidence. We have been playing well in a lot of games but not getting the results and not scoring the goals that we needed to score. Finally, in the last two games, we have converted on a lot of our opportunities.”

Duke will look to capitalize on this newfound offensive efficiency against the Panthers (5-7-3, 0-5-1) Saturday night. Pittsburgh has struggled in conference play this season and is winless in October. The Panthers have only scored 15 goals in their 15 games, converting just 8.8 percent of their shots. But Pittsburgh has stayed in most games on the back of its defense, which is holding opponents to 1.4 goals and 9.6 shots per game. Goalkeeper Dan Lynd led the ACC with 72 saves last season and ranks fourth so far this year with 46.

The Blue Devils will have to channel their offensive firepower in Saturday’s contest if they hope leave the Steel City with an elusive victory on the road and prove themselves to the NCAA tournament selection committee. If Duke falls back into the inconsistent and inefficient offensive play it struggled with for much of the season, the Panthers could deny the Blue Devils a win they desperately need.

“It’s going to take a big effort,” Kerr said. “We’re going to need to bring a real concentration and a real understanding of what we’re trying to do. Our ability to put pressure on them early is going to be key. We know we’re going to be able to continue to create chances, but we’ll have to continue to convert on them like we have in the past two games.”

After Saturday’s contest, Duke returns home to host Jacksonville Tuesday at 7 p.m. before taking on Virginia Tech Friday at home to close out the regular season.


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