After his team’s first loss of the season—a 3-1 home defeat against then-unranked California Sunday—a question has been on Duke head coach Robbie Church’s mind this week: How will the Blue Devils respond to adversity?
Church will get an answer this weekend as No. 21 Duke hits the road to take on Samford Friday at 8 p.m. at the Samford Track and Soccer Complex in Birmingham, Ala., and Louisiana State Sunday at 1 p.m. at the LSU Soccer Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. With 10 days remaining before the Blue Devils’ ACC debut—against No. 3 Florida State at Koskinen Stadium—they have a good opportunity to apply the lessons learned from the defeat against the Golden Bears.
“I knew in my mind that we were going to respond very strongly both on Tuesday and Wednesday during our training,” Church said. “I’ve been very happy with our training. We picked up on intensity, we changed some things in our formation. The kids are still hungry and they are ready to play. There are going to be bad times, so it’s all about how you respond when things aren’t going your way.”
Duke (4-1-1) has already scored 13 goals this season, more than half of what the team registered in 2014. Highly touted freshmen Taylor Racioppi and Kayla McCoy have made an immediate impact in the Blue Devil offense, ranking as the team's top scorers with four tallies each.
Forward Imani Dorsey has missed three consecutive games due to a hamstring injury, but Church said the Elkrdige, Md., native is healthy and might see some minutes this weekend. But if the sophomore is not completely recovered, junior captain Christina Gibbons might leave her defensive position to play in the attacking third of the field like she did against California.
Gibbons said the Blue Devils found positive aspects of the contest against the Golden Bears that they could still rescue despite being on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
“We actually created a lot of chances in that game and people don’t tend to see those because you see the loss,” Gibbons said. “We outshot them and we’ve been working on transitions, to continue getting forward quickly once we win the ball. I think it’s something we can [build on] but that we didn’t necessarily execute [against California] but it’s definitely a stepping stone.”
Despite allowing three goals against California Sunday, Duke’s stalwart defense started the season with five straight shutouts, tying the mark first set in 1997. Sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor has snagged 27 saves this fall, with 10 of them coming during the scoreless tie at Penn State Aug. 28.
Duke has played only one contest outside the state of North Carolina—the scoreless draw against Penn State—meaning the road visits to Samford (4-2-0) and Louisiana State (4-0-2) will also give the Blue Devils more chances to play in front of a hostile crowd.
“One of the main things that I really want us to stress out is dynamically attacking people,” Church said. “We have a lot of dynamic players who are very good on the ball and very good at running at people. But we’ve got to be consistent. We’ve shown flashes in some games but not consistently. You’ve got to go at people and that’s one of the things I want to see this weekend—dynamically attacking with speed, attacking with numbers.”
Samford has racked up 13 goals in six games but has also conceded eight. The Bulldogs—who are tied for first in the Southern Conference with East Tennessee State and Furman—beat Wake Forest 2-1 in Birmingham Aug. 30, five days before losing against then-No. 11 Auburn 2-0. Samford has lost only one of its five home games this campaign.
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Offensively, Duke will have to control a potent Bulldog duo from the opening whistle. Jermaine Seoposenwe has only rolled the ball home once in six contests, but the forward is the top facilitator in the nation with eight assists. Malcanisha Kelly, a 5-foot-10 forward, is Samford’s top scorer with six goals in six games.
Louisina State, ranked third in the Western branch of the SEC, is unbeaten at home this season, but Duke will be the first nationally ranked squad to visit Baton Rouge.
The Tigers will pose diverse attacking threats that the Blue Devil defense will look to stop. Sophomore forward Jorian Baucom has notched 14 points in six games, and junior forward Summer Clarke and senior midfielder Natalia Gomez-Junco have combined for three strikes and eight assists. In the Tigers’ most recent game—a commanding 4-0 win against Indiana, with three tallies coming in the opening period—Baucom and Clarke scored two goals each, and Gomez-Junco fed her teammates twice.
“We have two huge games this weekend and [we try] not to dwell too much on the loss [against California],” Gibbons said. “But [we tried] to learn from it, take away from it what we can. And then [we will] go there this weekend with still the same confidence and trying to keep the same momentum, winning games, getting shutouts and just moving into our season.”