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Duke men's soccer looks to clinch ACC tournament bye in regular season finale

<p>Much of Duke's aggressive attack comes from junior midfielder Deniele Proch.</p>

Much of Duke's aggressive attack comes from junior midfielder Deniele Proch.

Following an agonizing 1-0 loss to No. 5 North Carolina, Duke men’s soccer looks to rebound against Virginia Tech with sights set on a first-round bye in the ACC tournament. 

The No. 14 Blue Devils will travel to Thompson Field in Blacksburg, Va., to take on the Hokies Friday at 7 p.m. After winning four straight contests in the first half of October—including two over top-10 teams—Duke has struggled offensively lately, getting shut out in two of its past three matchups.

“We are playing well, we are getting in good spots and we just need to execute,” Blue Devils head coach John Kerr said. “It has been kind of one of our Achilles' heels. We are capable, we are good enough, we just have to concentrate and finish it off.” 

Trying to turn Duke’s offense back into gear will not come easy against Virginia Tech, which boasts one of the top goalies in the country in sophomore Mathijs Swaneveld. The Netherlands native ranks No. 10 in the country with 72 total saves, and also places in the top 35 in both saves per game and save percentage.

“We pepper him with shots, we just make him work,” Kerr said of what the Blue Devils need to do against an elite goalie like Swaneveld. “He is good in the air [and] pretty solid all the way around. We just have to make him work when we get the opportunity.”

But making the goalie work has not been something Duke (9-5-1, 4-3 in the ACC) has done well of late, totaling just seven shots on goal in its past three contests. Overall, the Blue Devils are 49th in the country with 5.93 shots on goal per game, a mark they must try to surpass Friday night if they hope to end the season on a positive note. 

Swaneveld is not the only member on the Hokies roster Duke needs to watch out for, though. James Kasak’s seven total assists place the junior 19th in the nation, while sophomore Kristo Strickler ranks 45th in the country with eight goals.

“Kristo is a very good finisher; he has got a little knack for scoring goals from all positions,” Kerr said. “So we have got to really keep an eye on him and get pressure on him. Because if you give him a free look, he is going to take advantage of it.”

The Blue Devils’ loss to the Tar Heels Tuesday erased any hope of an ACC Coastal title. But Duke still heads into its game with Virginia Tech (9-4-3, 3-3-1 in the ACC) with a chance to tie its program high with five conference wins, a feat it has not achieved since 2006. 

Furthermore, a victory clinches the team a second-place finish in the ACC Coastal and a first-round bye in the upcoming ACC tournament. But to do that, Kerr wants his team to go into Blacksburg, Va. with one specific goal in mind.

“I would like a shutout,” Kerr said. “I feel that we can win the game if we play really cohesively defensively.”

Blue Devils midfielder Daniele Proch also enters the team’s regular-season finale with some individual objectives in mind. The junior’s eleven goals currently tangle him in a nine-way tie for No. 14 in the country, with only two goals separating him from bolting into the nation’s top five. 

Overall, Virginia Tech has had a resurgent 2018 campaign, finishing with only its second winning season since 2008. Duke has suffered only one loss at the hands of the Hokies during that time period, but that defeat came during Virginia Tech’s only other winning season in 2016. The Blue Devils hope to avoid that result this time around before turning their focus to the ACC championship, which starts Oct.31.

“When our team is focused and up for it, we are very difficult to beat,” Kerr said. “Coming off of a good win against Pitt on Friday and a good performance against [North Carolina], I see no reason why we will not be up for the game [Friday] night.”