Stifling defense anchors Duke in wins

With Sunday’s win, Duke advances to its first NCAA Tournament quarterfinal since 2005.
With Sunday’s win, Duke advances to its first NCAA Tournament quarterfinal since 2005.

The Blue Devils passed two formidable tests this weekend as Duke continues on the road to the Women’s College Cup final in Georgia. The two wins over talented and disciplined squads—Georgia and Ohio State—should give the Blue Devils an ample dose of confidence going forward.

The weekend’s matches emphasized two of Duke’s strongest qualities, which should make it difficult for any team in the nation to eliminate the No. 1 seeded Blue Devils. First, for all of Duke’s firepower up front, its suffocating defense will be the deciding factor in whether or not head coach Robbie Church wins his first national championship. Secondly, the Blue Devils can rely on players other than their strikers to score.

In Ohio State, the Blue Devils faced a side that returned seven starters from a 2010 team that made it to the national semifinals. The Buckeyes’ experience and composure were evident on the field Sunday, but Duke’s stellar defense of what was a potent Ohio State offense stalled any chance of an upset at Koskinen Stadium. The Blue Devils outshot the Buckeyes 20-2, and simply did not allow Ohio State to establish its preferred offense.

The Buckeyes’ 4-4-2 formation is spearheaded by senior Paige Maxwell, a creative forward who, at 5-foot-9, is very strong on the ball and difficult to defend in the air. Maxwell, who can usually be found stalking around the border of the 18-yard box, is adept at picking a pass to the flank before making a supportive run toward the goal, where Ohio State’s wing players can feed it back inside.

On Friday, Maxwell combined brilliantly with attacking midfielder Kristen Niederhaus and fellow striker Tiffany Cameron and repeatedly broke down their second round opponent Milwaukee’s defense, eventually scoring twice on the No. 15 team in the nation and pulling the upset.

But those passes that the Buckeyes completed with ease against the Panthers were not available against a stout Duke defense that manipulated Ohio State from the opening whistle. The Buckeyes’ attack was relegated from a fluid ground-oriented offense to one that relied almost solely upon long balls from the back to Cameron, as Maxwell was carefully marked for nearly the entirety of the match.

Maxwell’s involvement in the game lasted only a few seconds, yet resulted in a goal that put Ohio State in front 1-0. Just seconds after Duke defender Alex Straton was substituted into the game for the first time, she sprayed a loose pass upfield which was intercepted and gave away possession in a very dangerous area. Cameron fed the ball to a streaking Maxwell, who buried her shot past a helpless Tara Campbell to give the Buckeyes a shocking lead.

“Both of their [forwards] were very good,” Church said. “I thought that we had to keep them off the board. Even when they scored I wasn’t worried because there weren’t so many shots coming in.”

Center backs Natasha Anasi and Libby Jandl played what Church called their best soccer of their careers against Milwaukee and Ohio State, and seem to only be improving with each game. With their ability to negate the opposing team’s biggest offensive threat, Duke doesn’t have to score three or four goals to advance as in years past.

Perhaps more importantly, the Blue Devils proved they can beat talented teams even when freshman phenom Kelly Cobb doesn’t find the back of the net—though Church will be relieved that Cobb regained her scoring touch Sunday.

“Kelly’s done a lot of things for us,” Church said. “She hasn’t scored in a while, but her presence on the field dictates so many [defenders].”

Midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr capitalized on the openings Cobb created, scoring against both the Panthers and the Buckeyes this weekend to bring her NCAA Tournament total to four goals. Kerr’s ability to produce from midfield takes pressure off of Duke’s three strikers, who each had a resurgent weekend. Though Cobb had not scored since Oct. 30th against Virginia Tech, the freshman equalized the game Sunday and was instrumental in setting up Duke’s other chances.

Laura Weinberg—who had not scored since her sensational performance on the road against Wake Forest a month ago—was perhaps the Blue Devils’ most impressive player in the second and third rounds of the tournament. Weinberg headed a goal past Georgia and easily could have scored three or four times against Ohio State if not for some outstanding saves from Katie Baumgardner.

If both the offense and defense continue to operate at the efficiency they showed Sunday, Duke has a very good chance to advance to the Final Four, with yet another home game to play Friday.


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