With only four games to go, Duke will face a pivotal top-20 matchup with major implications for seeding in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
The 16th-ranked Blue Devils will look to improve upon their two impressive road wins last week against Pittsburgh and then-No. 10 Georgetown as they face off against No. 11 Clemson on Friday the 13th at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium.
Duke players characterize the Tigers as a resilient, talented team that will be undeterred despite recent losses in close games to Wake Forest and Notre Dame.
“We watched their video, they were in both games, it wasn’t like they got dominated, so they’re going to take a lot of confidence from that. We need to be careful," said Cody Brinkman, a senior midfielder from Durham. "If we think after these couple losses they’re feeling down, that’s the last thing they’re feeling. They put in good performances, so they’re going to come out ready, come out confident, come out hungry, so I think we need to match that and raise it. We’re doing well but the second we get complacent, we’re dead.”
“I’ve played them a few times, and they’re a proper good team, scrappy, yet technical with some good individuals,” said Markus Fjørtoft, a senior from Asker, Norway.
Clemson (9-3-0, 2-3-0 in the ACC) is just 1-2-0 on the road this year, with its conference victories coming against Pittsburgh and Boston College. Clemson suffered losses to N.C. State, Wake Forest and Notre Dame, three stronger ACC opponents. The Tigers have earned their No. 11 ranking with a formidable unit on both ends of the pitch. The sixth-ranked offense in the nation averages 2.4 goals per game, and goalie Ximo Miralles has a 0.87 goals against average.
“Clemson is a great team with a great attack, and they counter attack pretty well with a couple of speedy players. We need to try to limit the amount of balls that get behind us that they can play, especially because they have a couple of center mids that can play well," Brinkman said. "We need to try to get pressure on them and limit the amount of impact they have. They like to get into a rhythm and dominate the game. If we can disrupt that and get into our rhythm, I think that would be good for us.”
The back end is a strength for Duke (10-2-1, 3-2-0), as freshman Will Pulisic has allowed just 0.92 goals per game and registered five shutouts along the way, tied for the most in the ACC.
“We’ve won a lot of games this year by staying tight defensively and taking care of our chances," Fjørtoft said. "Now, we know that we will have our [offensive] chances, but defensively it’s decided by little moments, seconds of brilliance or lack of concentration, so for us to be aware of that in every aspect of the game will be vital.”
The Blue Devils have not played in the NCAA tournament since 2011, but with wins against two ranked opponents already this year and a chance at a third Friday, their RPI ranking is No. 7 in the nation, making them a near lock to qualify for this year's field.
“We have put ourselves in an excellent position. Different from previous years, we are one of the favorites," Fjørtoft said. "It’s a little different for us being this highly ranked, but something we set a goal of attainting and truly embrace.”
Despite the serious nature in which Duke is approaching the daunting final stretch of its season— which includes three top-10 opponents in a two-week span—the team certainly does not lack confidence.
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“Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia are undoubtedly very good, and it will be very tough," Fjørtoft said. "But knowing that we’ve beaten top-10 teams before and knowing how well we’ve matched up in the two losses we’ve had, and deservedly so in my opinion, at home we know we can win all of them.”