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Duke men's soccer looking to build off strong 2017 in opener against top-20 opponent

Ciaran McKenna has shifted to the back line in order to help Duke recover from the loss of experience on the defensive side.
Ciaran McKenna has shifted to the back line in order to help Duke recover from the loss of experience on the defensive side.

More than 30 years removed from its first and only national championship, the 2018 Duke men’s soccer team enters the season with optimism and high expectations. 

The 10th-ranked Blue Devils will open their regular season Friday evening at Koskinen Stadium when they host No. 20 Florida International University. Duke is looking to build on an impressive season that ended with a run to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re very excited about how things have gone in the preseason, so we’re very optimistic about how our team is going to foray into the regular season,” head coach John Kerr said. “We have a nice blend of experienced players coming back alongside some very talented young freshmen and the two graduate players are looking really good as well.”

Although the squad lost nine seniors in the spring, mostly on the defensive end, the team is receiving an infusion of talent in the form of the sixth-best recruiting class per Top Drawer Soccer. The class, composed of seven freshmen and two graduate student transfers, looks to complement the 19 returning players. 

“We’ve been working a lot on our defense this preseason making sure that everyone knows their role and hopefully we can continue our strategy of pursuing shutouts,” Kerr said. “We have a couple new guys back there but we still had shutouts in two of our three games this preseason which was pleasing.” 

Looking to replace the void left by seniors that Duke lost on the backline, Kerr has been experimenting with his defense. For instance, after playing more in the midfield last season, Kerr has decided to shift captain Ciaran McKenna to the back line. His intelligence and leadership should help anchor a dominant Duke defense and provide a capable last line of defense before keeper Will Pulisic. Kerr also expects incoming freshman Aedan Stanley to play a big role after a spring spent with the U.S. U20 Team. 

The defensive performance in the preseason was encouraging as the Blue Devils allowed just one goal across 285 minutes of play. However, Duke only managed to score just two goals of its own in the same span. Because of that, Kerr is preaching offensive execution this weekend. But, with three of the top four goal scorers returning—complemented by a host of skilled players—Kerr is confident that his team will score more than it did in the preseason. 

Since the John Rennie Nike Tournament was renamed for the longtime Duke head coach in 2010, the Blue Devils have thoroughly dominated the tournament. They have won the last two titles and four of the last six. Despite that run of success, the Blue Devils are anticipating a difficult stretch of games this weekend. 

“We always want to start off the season with a bang and winning the John Rennie Invitational has historically been a good sign for wonderful things ahead,” Kerr said. “But we’re not taking anything for granted, we know that Florida International is coming back after us knocking them out in the playoffs last year with a chip on their shoulder, so we know that it’s going to be a really tough game on Friday night. But it’ll be a fun weekend and hopefully the fans will see some good soccer.”

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