After finding themselves on the wrong side of a hard-fought rematch against top-ranked North Carolina last week, the fifth-ranked Blue Devils are still in search of a signature win this season.
They’ll have a chance to get just that this Thursday at 4 p.m. against No. 2 Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla. Duke looked every bit as good as North Carolina for much of last Friday's match, a feeling that emulated that of the team's previous loss to the Tar Heels as well. But despite the positives from that game, Blue Devil head coach Robbie Church isn’t satisfied.
“We're in the business of winning games,” Church said. “We're in the business of trying to get our club into the elite category of women's soccer. There's no moral victories for us here. This team's been so great. This is such a great group of young ladies—they work hard, they play the games hard, they compete and they want to be really great. So we feel bad when things don't go [well] in these big games. But we can't feel too bad because we gotta go to Florida State. And they're pretty damn good. We gotta move on. We got to go.”
Church is right—the Blue Devils (5-1-2, 3-1-2 in the ACC) will have to move on from their latest defeat if they hope to come out with the win Thursday. North Carolina may be the top-ranked team in the country, but the Seminoles (6-0, 6-0) could be the biggest challenge that Duke’s defense will face all season.
For the Blue Devils to secure their first win against Florida State since 2017, their offense will obviously have to get back on track after being held scoreless against the Tar Heels. But, as is often the case for Duke, the first focus will be defensive, which isn’t hard to do when you’ve got players like Taylor Mitchell and Caitlin Cosme holding down arguably the best back line in the country. Nevertheless, Florida State enters the match boasting the nation’s highest-scoring offense by over a goal per game, having scored four or more goals in five of their six matches to date.
“Florida State is a little bit more talented and a little bit deeper, attacking wise and on the offensive side, than Virginia or North Carolina,” Church said. “They just have really quality players. And they have really quality players on the bench. And so when one lady goes out, another one comes in and arguably the one that came in is maybe even better than the one that just went out."
A particular focus for Duke in this game will be on set plays, as Florida State serves some of the best balls in the country off these opportunities. In their last game against Virginia Oct. 18, the Seminoles scored two of their four goals off of set plays, and with no games since then, they've had nothing but time to work on improving those plays even further.
“I think it starts in the goal too,” Church said. “I think Ruthie [Jones] has to be really good in goal. She has to be really good on probably bringing a goal or so back and making some really big saves. I thought she did that against Carolina.”
“I think set plays are going to be huge, and we've done a really good job on set plays this year. But we have to continue. We have to be clean there. Number one, we have to be good defensively. And then we can hopefully try to catch them a little bit in transition too.”
Playing against the No. 2 team in the country is a big deal at any point in the season, but is especially important now, with the ACC tournament just weeks away and seeding still not set. If the Blue Devils can secure a win against the Seminoles, they'll practically lock up the third seed in the conference. If not, the road to the ACC Championship will become a lot tougher.
But right now, the focus is on Florida State and being able to snag a signature win before the regular season concludes.
“We’re still at that point where we haven't been able to say, ‘Okay, here's our signature win,’” Church said. “So what do you do? You just gotta keep on playing. Let me use this. We just felt like our guts had been ripped out on Friday night [against North Carolina], and we just have to move on. Florida State hasn't played in two weeks—they're sitting there waiting for us, and they're hungry. It's gonna be a tough game. That's the next part of our maturation process. We got to get a win. These are the games that we need to get a big win.”
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