Duke is back, and learning how small the difference is between winning and losing.
Yes, the Blue Devils lost 2-0 Sunday afternoon at Koskinen Stadium, and to a North Carolina team missing three of its best players.
But make no mistake: Duke women’s soccer is back to contention.
For 37 minutes, it looked like both teams would stay deadlocked all afternoon. But some tough luck in the closing minutes of the first half put the Tar Heels up 2-0, and they didn’t look back.
“I thought our players did a really good job of executing what we wanted to do out there today. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of the scoreboard,” head coach Robbie Church said. “But we did grow. And everybody’s disappointed, everybody’s down right now, because there were long stretches of the game that we were the better team out there. Even [North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance] said that after the game.”
Both Duke (1-1-2, 0-1-2 in the ACC) and North Carolina (3-0, 3-0 in the ACC) had ample opportunities to take an early lead, but the score remained tied until a Tar Heel corner in the 37th minute. The corner was turned away and resulted in a scrum, where the ball got chipped across from the upfield corner of the box. Duke goalie Ruthie Jones tried an ill-advised punch, but shanked it right down. Blue Devil defender Taylor Mitchell attempted but could do nothing to stop the own-goal.
North Carolina broke through again in the 43rd minute. It was a simple action from their left winger, Aleigh Gambone, who couldn’t beat Duke wingback Emily Royson off the dribble and was forced into a chip pass by an incoming slide tackle from forward Grace Watkins. Even if centre back Caitlin Cosme had played the pass perfectly, she couldn’t have matched Tar Heel forward Izzy Brown’s vertical. Jones was perhaps a step slow in sliding toward Brown, but very few goalies are capable of saving a perfect header, and the Tar Heels extended their lead to 2-0.
These goals had two things in common. One, Jones was slightly imperfect, which is to be expected of someone making her third career start against the best team in the nation. She’s been in net against some of the best programs in the nation and has allowed three goals against 14 saves behind great range and hands. Mitchell and Cosme are one of the best centre back pairings in the country, but the 2-5-3 that Church has been running since Jones has started puts an immense amount of pressure on the sophomore goalkeeper. Church clearly trusts her, though, and with a little time to develop her soccer IQ and instincts, she should be able to iron out those issues.
The second commonality between the goals was that they came when the Blue Devils forced the Tar Heels into tough situations. If Jones doesn’t try to punch the crossing chip before the own-goal, it sails out of bounds and Duke perfectly defends a corner. If Gambone doesn’t lace a perfect pass, or if Brown’s header isn’t about eight feet off the ground, Duke forces an empty shot because Watkins hustled and forced the issue.
If a couple of things went the other way, North Carolina could be talking about a tough loss of its own. If All-ACC-fullback-turned-winger Delaney Graham has more experience finishing at the goal, the Blue Devils could have had a 1-0 lead in just the second minute. If Tess Boade had a tighter dribble or cleaner off-the-dribble shot, there would have been an easy score in the 30th minute.
“I think we played well today,” Graham said. “There were definitely stretches when we were the better team out there. And I think in the past, we’ve been scared, a little bit, to play Carolina, and we’ve sat back and just let them come at us. But today, I think we played an objective to actually go out and score on them.”
Of course, if "if"s and "but"s were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a Merry Christmas. The fact that the final box score, aside from goals allowed, shows a virtual tie doesn’t change the fact that Duke likely has to win out for home-field advantage in the ACC tournament.
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What it does mean is that the Blue Devils are in the best place they've been in since 2017, the last time they looked like they belonged on the same field as the Tar Heels. Unlike that 2017 team, though, only a couple of the best 2020 Blue Devils are seniors.
So the 70-plus minutes that Duke nearly matched North Carolina were nothing short of a landmark in its hike back to the peak of Division I women’s soccer. Over the past couple of years, the Blue Devils turned one of the sport's preeminent annual matchups into an unfortunate formality. Today, however, everyone who has access to the ACC Network was rewarded with a prime example of why soccer is called “the beautiful game.”
“You could see the change," Church said. "I don’t know if something kind of kicked in during the week, but you could see something really kicked in…. You felt like the team was more connected, you felt like the team was playing better, you felt like we were starting to grow. And I think it did show in long stretches of the game today. I think it really showed that we were growing, we were getting better. That's what happens at high-level soccer.”
Duke has an opportunity to avenge this loss with a rematch at North Carolina Oct. 23. Until then, the Blue Devils will wrap up the season’s homestand with No. 3 Clemson this coming Sunday and Virginia Tech the following Friday, before taking an extended weekend in the Northeast.