There is that theme in sports that is so easy to love. A showdown between a team that has one last hurrah, and another team that is just beginning its rise to the top.
Friday night, Duke will try to advance to the national championship for the second time in three years with a starting lineup of six seniors and redshirt seniors. UCLA, the Blue Devils’ opponent, has eight starters who are underclassmen. It will almost surely be back to this stage during the next few years, so perhaps there is more on the line for the veteran Duke team.
But make no mistake, the Bruins are likely the Blue Devils’ most difficult challenge so far.
Duke head coach Robbie Church and his top-seeded Blue Devils face what he calls a “who’s-who of women’s soccer” in second-seeded UCLA Friday night in the NCAA semifinals at 7:30 p.m. at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Duke is looking for its first national championship in the program’s four trips to the College Cup, and the Bruins are looking for their second after the team’s current head coach, Amanda Cromwell, won in her first year on the job in 2013.
“With so many of our seniors graduating, it is [our last chance],” Church said. “There’s been very little highs and very little lows.... They’ve been very consistent and playing at a high level, so in that aspect, and probably offensively, this is our most talented team.”
The Blue Devils have two losses this year, but both came at the hands of the same team, North Carolina, and in both games Duke was without its best player, Rebecca Quinn.
Quinn—who was injured for all but four games last season—has not lost in a Duke uniform since a 1-0 loss to Penn State in the 2015 national championship.
Church admitted she is the best player he has coached in 17 seasons at Duke.
"I don’t know if we’ve ever had a player who’s just as smart as she is,” he said. “The ball’s just glued to her foot, [she] makes great decisions and she’s just a connector.”
The team’s use of Quinn has been a way of going all in on this season. Church chose to redshirt her last year when she was dealing with a lingering foot injury so that this year, she would be fully healthy and the team could make a title run.
Without the redshirt senior in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils (23-2-0) struggled to get the ball from midfield to the attack, resulting in many long balls and Duke winning just 1-0 against UNC-Greensboro. Since Quinn has been back, the Blue Devils have outscored their last three opponents a combined 14-0.
Going up against Quinn in the midfield will be Jessie Fleming, a UCLA sophomore who has played alongside Quinn on the Canadian national team. Whereas Quinn plays holding midfield at Duke and shifts to defense with Canada, Fleming plays attacking midfield both collegiately and internationally.
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In addition to Fleming’s speed, the Bruins (19-2-2) boast three players with more than 20 points this season—Hailie Mace, Anika Rodriguez and Ashley Sanchez. Mace is tied for ninth in the country with 15 goals this year, one more than the Blue Devils’ Kayla McCoy and Imani Dorsey.
Friday’s game might have even been tougher for Duke if not for a UCLA decommitment. U.S. national team starter Mallory Pugh planned to begin college at UCLA in the fall of 2017 but instead turned pro.
The Bruins needed overtime to defeat Northwestern 1-0 in the second round and beat third-seeded Virginia 2-1 in both the regular season and NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils beat the Cavaliers 1-0 twice.
“When [our players] step on the field, they’re ready to go and they’re looking to attack from the opening minute,” Church said, adding that the toughest part Friday will be “how are going to react with the nerves? Even though we’re veteran, it’s still a tough situation.”
The Blue Devils will hope to jump out to an early start, something they have done increasingly well. Duke did not score a goal in the opening 10 minutes of its first 13 games of the year, but has done so in six of its last 12 games and each of the last three.
If the Blue Devils win, they will play the winner of top-seeded and top-ranked Stanford's matchup with top-seeded South Carolina Sunday at noon. It would mark a chance for redemption in the finals for nine current starters, and if they play the Cardinal, redemption for Church after they beat Duke 1-0 in the 2011 finals.