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Column: Duke women’s soccer faces tough-yet-winnable path in NCAA tournament

Sophomore midfielder Sophie Jones was named to the All-ACC First Team this past fall before the season resumed in the spring.
Sophomore midfielder Sophie Jones was named to the All-ACC First Team this past fall before the season resumed in the spring.

After Duke’s longest regular season ever and a nonconference schedule designed to prove the team's worth, the Blue Devils are in the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight year.

The NCAA announced its tournament bracket Monday, with Duke coming in as the No. 9 overall seed, its highest seeding in three years and second-highest since 2012. Its record included a win against No. 14-seed Clemson, a fairly dominating tie with No. 16-seed Vanderbilt, a close tie with play-in Virginia and quality losses to No. 1-seed Florida State, No. 2-seed North Carolina and No. 5-seed West Virginia.

Duke (10-5-3, 4-2-2 in the ACC) sits in the Florida State quarter of the bracket, and the Blue Devils' quality regular season earned them a first-round bye as they await the winner of an Arizona State-Siena play-in. Should Duke come away with a win there, it'll play the winner of the match between USC and Mississippi/Bowling Green for a spot in the quarterfinals.

But the real question is: What are Duke’s actual chances of getting to the College Cup (Final Four) at WakeMed Park in Cary, N.C.?

The Blue Devils shouldn't have trouble advancing to the Round of 16. Arizona State (8-5-3, 4-4-2 in the Pac-12) is one of three Pac-12 teams to be selected for the tournament, despite having been fairly unimpressive all season—the Sun Devils had a -29 shot differential in conference play and their shots on goal differential was barely positive. Their lone top-25 win came against USC, despite Arizona State having been roundly outplayed in that match.

Siena (6-0-2, 4-0-1 in the MAAC) played much better against its conference, but the MAAC is a fairly weak conference, and the Saints didn’t exactly dominate it. They’re going to just their third tournament ever and their first since 2015, and have returned the bulk of a 2019 team that went 4-11-4, all of which is to say that there’s not a track record of big performance.

The Round of 16 is where it'll get hard. There’s a very good chance Duke sees No. 8-seed USC (7-3-3, 6-3-2 in the Pac-12), given that Mississippi (6-4-3, 2-3-3 in the SEC) only has one quality win to its name and Bowling Green (6-1, 5-1 in the MAC) only dominated a very weak conference. USC, however, performed extremely well in the Pac-12, including playing No. 3-seed UCLA even over 220 minutes.

The Trojans present a unique matchup for the Blue Devils, but one Duke should be well-situated to contain. USC’s offense is built around having two of the best strikers in the country, and getting them the ball in every way possible. The Blue Devils have arguably the best back line in the country, however, and are quite adept against individual scoring threats—Virginia is a comparable team to USC, and Duke has held the Cavaliers to just two goals in the two teams' past 310 minutes against one another. And the Trojans are weakest at their back line, which should play up a Blue Devil attack that struggles to finish. Duke may not be favored against USC, but it should be more likely that the Blue Devils are in control for 90 minutes than the Trojans win a blowout.

Should Duke beat USC and make it to the quarterfinals, it would take a historic upset for anyone but Florida State to await the Blue Devils. The Seminoles are a powerhouse, with eight players between TopDrawerSoccer’s Top 100 and Freshman Top 100, including the No. 1 player in the country—and the only USWNT player in college right now—in midfielder Jaelin Howell. With a couple exceptions, Florida State made a complete mockery of the strongest conference in the country and cruised to an ACC title, before deciding that was sufficient and not playing in the spring.

Florida State (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) can play nearly any style, but prefers to try quick strikes in the early minutes before substituting its way into its best lineup and then playing extremely methodical possessions while still taking a bevy of shots. The Seminoles play defense as if they’re on offense, actively seeking and destroying possessions in the midfield before they develop. Duke’s defense matches up well here, but its offense would be reliant on strong counters and corners to win.

The Seminoles have outshot their opponents by a margin of 12.6 shots per game, including 4.9 on goal, absurd numbers for playing in the ACC. They outshot their opponents in all 11 of their games, and were outshot-on-goal just once: the ACC tournament semifinals, in which Duke posted 10 shots on goal to Florida State's eight but fell to the Seminoles 4-0.

The Blue Devils earned their way into a winnable side of the Florida State bracket, but if they can actually manage to advance to the College Cup, this could end up being one of the most remarkable Duke runs ever.

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