Looking to right a record when entering conference play is never easy. It is even harder when that conference is the ACC. It is nearly impossible when the sport is women’s soccer, and the ACC is loaded with seven top 25 powerhouses.
If any team is ready to take the challenge, it’s the Blue Devils.
Duke will kick off ACC play at Ambrose Urbanic Field against Pittsburgh Friday at 7 p.m. As a newcomer to the ACC, the Panthers boast one of the youngest teams in the conference with three seniors and two juniors to lead 23 underclassmen. Although the team has a veteran defense, its midfield and offense is young, just like the Blue Devils.
“They’re a lot like us in that they’re a young team,” head coach Robbie Church said of the Panthers. “They brought in a lot of players and they’re trying to change the culture of their program. It looks from afar… that they’re a much improved team.”
The Panthers will begin conference play with a 4-4 record, after recently losing 1-0 to VCU at home Friday. The Blue Devils have an identical 4-4 record, coming off of a 2-1 loss to Hofstra in Charlottesville, Va. Friday and a 1-0 win against LSU at home Sunday.
Although Duke’s record appears mediocre, it has outshot opponents 156-85 so far this season. On average, the team has had significantly more corner kicks and nearly nine more shots per game than its opponent. Despite the fact that the Blue Devils have struggled to place the ball in the back of the net, they have never experienced a shortage of scoring opportunities.
“We’ve hit a couple crossbars and a couple posts. We’ve been a bit unlucky,” Church said. “We’re also hitting a lot of balls at goalkeepers right now. We’re making a lot of [them] look like All-Americans.”
Duke began the season with losses to Ohio State and Stanford at the UNC Nike Classic. It then found offensive success against West Virginia and UAB the next week. In their own Nike Classic, the Blue Devils found continued success on offense with a 3-0 win against then-No. 18 Arkansas. Soon after, Duke was narrowly defeated at the hands of the then-No. 7 Nittany Lions. The team closed out non-conference play this past weekend with a loss to Hofstra and a win against LSU.
As the season has progressed, the nature of the Blue Devils’ issues has changed.
Initially, the main issue was offensive cohesion and finishing on scoring opportunities. With time, however, Duke seemed to find its offensive stride, and the defense began to falter. In multiple games, the team has lost due to defensive miscommunications or the mishandling of the ball in front of the net.
“[The defense] is a very young group. It’s a work in progress, but they’re getting better,” Church said. "It seems like sometimes when we’ve made mistakes this year it’s always ended up in the back of our net. We’ve just gotta be able to cut down some of the mistakes we’ve made. We have to be able to mark players better in the box [and] do a much better job of knocking crosses down and not letting that many crosses get in.”
The Blue Devils will enter ACC play with fresh legs and fresh minds. For the first time all season, they will be playing just one team in a weekend. This will give the team the ability to focus solely on defeating Pittsburghm while it also gives the team a full week to recover before it heads back to the Research Triangle to take on N.C. State.
Duke is confident that it will be the team to defy the odds and right its record in the immensely talented ACC. Statistics do not lie; the Blue Devils have the potential to be great. It is just a matter of time before the pieces fall into place.
“We felt like we could be 6-2 or 7-1, but we’re not and we have to face reality as we go into the ACC,” Church said. “When [ACC play] starts, everybody goes up a level. When you play anybody in the ACC, especially on the road, you have to bring your A-game. Nothing less than that will be acceptable.”
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