The road to the College Cup is long and winding, but sometimes, if you can weave through traffic just right, you can set your cruise control and just ride for a few miles.
The Blue Devils scored in the third minute Wednesday against Ole Miss, and threw on autopilot for the next 87 minutes to notch a 1-0 win in Cary, N.C. No. 9-seed Duke pushed the ball into its attacking third just after kickoff, generated a corner kick on that possession, and Tess Boade’s service from the right corner found Caitlin Cosme directly on the head for the opening score. The Blue Devils held possession on Mississippi’s side of the field for just about the next 35 minutes, and had at least a half-dozen near-goals by the half.
“[Ole Miss] competed hard, and I thought we competed hard,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “It wasn't the big, stylish games sometimes that we like to play, or the beautiful game that we like to play. But I thought we gutted this thing out and I thought we were mentally tough. And we did a really nice job of kind of grinding things out—not sometimes like we're used to, but winning first balls, winning second balls, they were big and I thought we did a really good job with that.”
After spending the game against Arizona State flipping between 4-3-3, 5-1-2-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations, Church elected to open against Mississippi in Duke’s base 4-3-3 with wing-backs. Wing-back Mia Gyau being healthy, after having to leave the win against the Sun Devils at halftime with a rolled ankle, helped enable its usage. And holding midfielder Sydney Simmons’ continued absence, as she continues to get ramped back up in practice, removes a midfielder from that formation decision.
Despite those concerns, and despite coming off a 102-minute-long affair against Arizona State in the second round, the Blue Devils had no trouble with speed and energy. The back line spent most of the match about 50 yards ahead of their goal, after being closer to 20 yards against the Sun Devils, and the offense flowed through the midfielders and wingers, a luxurious strategy that Duke doesn’t often have the ability to use.
“We really wanted to get after Ole Miss, from the beginning, from the whole game. Their game is 'kick and run,' and they're a physical team, and they win a lot of second balls,” Cosme said. “And I think after playing against [Arizona State], we just felt like, as we were winning, and as the game was going on, our lines were just getting further and further spread apart. So we made a really conscious effort to keep our lines together, get up quickly. And from the last game, they scored because all of us kind of weren't on the same page—when to step, when to drop—and today we got to get it done, because one goal can end a season.”
Ole Miss did manage to cause some chaos around Duke’s goal in the waning minutes of the first half and for about 14 minutes toward the beginning of the second half. But the quality of its looks weren’t close to that of the Blue Devils’, and most scoring attempts ended up deflected by wing-back Emily Royson’s head, centre back Taylor Mitchell's knee or some other part of a Duke player that was at least 15 yards away from goalie Ruthie Jones.
“I think a big part of the [Arizona State] game was the fact that we were giving up so many opportunities because of our box defending and just defending out wide…. We tried really, really hard and made a conscious effort to really limit the amount of crosses and corners that we gave [Mississippi],” Cosme said. “And all year, we were pretty solid with it; teams didn't really score on us with a cross-and-finish. But in this tournament, you're playing different teams, different personnel, and you're playing other teams who are good in the box and who can handle a ball in the air.”
The Blue Devils finishing the game notching seven shots, with four on goal, seems unexceptional. But the offense has looked leaps and bounds better with Delaney Graham back up at winger, and has sacrificed low-quality shots-on-goal for crossers and drives that get closer to converting with every match.
Whether they’ll convert into goals soon enough to matter is the real question. As Duke advances to the Elite Eight, it plays Florida State, which was ranked No. 1 nationally heading into the tournament and is a team the Blue Devils have had a history of problems with. They’ve played the Seminoles twice this year: in October, when Duke striker Mackenzie Pluck missed a couple of chip shots and Seminole superstar Jaelin Howell hit a game-winner off a corner kick with 14 seconds left in regulation, and a couple weeks later, when Florida State knocked Duke out of the ACC tournament.
The Blue Devils do have a clean 1-0 record against Florida State in the NCAA tournament under Church, knocking out the first-seeded Seminoles in the 2015 College Cup semifinals, a game where Duke was the No. 3-seed in its bracket.
The Blue Devils will have their chance to add another win to the series history against Florida State this Sunday at 1 p.m. in WakeMed Park.
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