ORLANDO, Fla.—Two years ago, an upstart Duke team beat veteran Florida State to advance to the national championship. Friday night, the Blue Devils were the veteran team, returning 15 players from the 2015 runner-up squad and facing a starting lineup of eight underclassmen.
And once again, youth beat experience, ending what was likely the most successful season in program history at the whim of a penalty shot.
No. 2 seed UCLA defeated top-seeded Duke 0-0 (4-3) in a national semifinal shootout at Orlando City Stadium thanks to a miss by Kat McDonald in the fifth round and then a game-winning shot into the upper right corner by Marley Canales. The Blue Devils and Bruins played a sort of cat-and-mouse game up to that point, with Duke bending but not breaking on defense and then coming close but not scoring on the counter-attacks.
The loss makes Duke the fourth team to go to at least four College Cups without winning a national championship.
“I know that we literally put everything we had on the field today. We gave it everything we possibly could,” senior Imani Dorsey said. “So when that happens and we don’t get the result we want, you kind of sit there and you’re like, ‘Where do you go from here? What does it all mean? Why?’”
Duke was the first team to blink in the shootout, with redshirt senior Malinda Allen hitting her team’s second attempt into the crossbar. Had the shot been slightly lower, it would have gone past goalkeeper Teagan Micah, who dove to her left.
Karlie Paschall scored in the third round for the Blue Devils and Duke goalkeeper EJ Proctor dove to her left for a save to put the Blue Devils back even. But in the fifth round, McDonald hit a dribbler to the right-center of the goal, an easy save for Micah.
Then it was up to Canales.
“I could see [Proctor] moving right-left-right-left, and for a quick second I was like, ‘Oh shoot,’” Canales said. “I knew that Coach Amanda [Cromwell] and the rest of the staff told me to trust the side you’re going to…. So I just had to hit it well, and whatever happens, happens.”
Until penalities, neither team had any can’t-miss opportunities. Possibly the best chance Duke had was in the 18th minute, when Ella Stevens pierced a through ball to Dorsey as she was running into the box. Dorsey had to hurry with a defender sliding in, and she one-timed a shot just wide of the right post.
“I was thinking about coming around and tapping it in with my right [foot], but I saw the defender sliding in, so I felt like it was right to take it with my left,” the first-team All-American said.
That same pair nearly connected in the second half on a Stevens free kick. Dorsey jumped up for the header in the box but could not make contact with the ball before Micah punched it away.
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Such was the story for much of the second half, as Duke dialed up the pressure on the Bruins and kept knocking on the door for about 15 minutes.
The Blue Devils (23-2-1) were able to control the second period due in part to UCLA’s aggressive strategy. In the first half, the Bruins (19-2-3) did not give Duke’s defense space to breathe, and the Blue Devils hardly advanced the ball past midfield. It was not sustainable for UCLA to press quite as much later into the game, though, which opened up more of the field.
“We were just very impatient in the first half,” Church said. “Once we decided to drop a little bit and go into a lower block, I thought we did that very well.... [But] it was hard to get as many people in the box as we needed to get in the box, especially when we countered wide.”
Later in the press conference, Church explained his penalty kick strategy, which involved using only one player who started—Ashton Miller, who scored—three substitutes and one player who came in cold, freshman Gabi Brummett.
Chelsea Burns took all but one of the team’s penalties this year, going 4-of-6 at the spot. Dorsey and Kayla McCoy scored 14 goals each this year. Yet none of the three nor Rebecca Quinn, whom Church this week referred to as the best player he has coached, had a crack in the shootout.
“We’ve been taking penalty kicks for five or six weeks. Chelsea played 110 minutes, and she was pretty beat,” Church said. “We had a combination of people that did play and people didn’t play as much, but over the course of charting penalty kicks and taking repetitions of penalty kicks, we were very comfortable with the kickers that we put up there.”
Only two UCLA starters took a penalty shot, one of which Proctor saved, and two players who did not play the entire game took penalties, including Canales.
The Bruins reached the national championship for the second time in five years, where they will face No. 1 overall seed Stanford Sunday at noon after the Cardinal beat South Carolina 2-0.
The Blue Devils lose six starters to graduation in what may have been their most talented senior class to date. It is a crushing blow to a team that spent the past three years building for this run.
“This has been the best year I’ve ever had as a coach, and I’ve been coaching for 36 years,” Church said. “You just keep knocking on that door, and one day that door is going to open.”