It was one of the boldest ideas in recent memory.
The Blue Devils were up against one of the greatest teams in the history of collegiate women’s soccer, a team that had broken their hearts twice in the fall. A team that Duke played more competitively than anyone else, including the No. 2 team in the country. The Blue Devils knew they were outclassed, and so they undertook one of the boldest, most ludicrous strategies in NCAA tournament history.
And it worked.
Duke lost in penalty kicks to Florida State, but the gameplan concocted by head coach Robbie Church and the assistant staff worked to perfection. Florida State huffed and it puffed and it could not blow the house down. Though the Seminoles advanced to the College Cup and the Blue Devils went home, the Seminoles’ record was no longer perfect: with Duke giving them their first tie, they will not have a chance to join the 1990-93 and 2003 North Carolina teams as national champions who did not tie a single game.
“You take the number-one team, we didn't lose the game,” said Church. “We just don't advance on penalty kicks.”
Church may insist that the Blue Devils “didn't really come all day with the plan of sitting back and letting [Florida State] keep possession,” but it was clear by the 25th minute how Duke was going to spend the match. And it wasn’t going to be “the big, stylish games sometimes that [the Blue Devils] like to play, or the beautiful game that [the Blue Devils] like to play” that Church has described. Even if Duke came in looking to play some modern hedgehog defense, it ended up spending more than an hour in trench warfare.
“Defensively, we just wanted to try to keep them wide, keep them in wide areas. We didn't want them to get in central areas,” said Church. “So it was basically a 'U' around them, we wanted them to play on the outside, and not be able to combine.”
Duke famously plays a whole host of formations throughout the regular season, so that the team is prepared at a moment’s notice to completely change its setup, like it did in the first round against Arizona State. But it had never experimented with a 5-4-1 before, a formation that Church switched to around the 25th minute, as Florida State offensive midfielders Yujie Zhao and Jenna Nighswonger subbed on, while Duke defensive mids Sydney Simmons and Lily Nabet came in and star centre mid Sophie Jones subbed off. That created a Blue Devil personnel grouping with seven defensive players on the field, not including goalie Ruthie Jones.
The bet that Duke made was that it had enough defensive depth, with players versatile enough and disciplined enough to run a new style for a substantial length of time without ever straying farther than 40 yards downfield. While changing its substitutions to match Florida State's unique pattern. Against one of the best teams ever. Sound easy?
“It's different. It's a lot, because…Duke doesn't have the ball,” said Ruthie Jones. “But at the same time, with so many players in front of me, I feel good, I trust the players in front of me so much. And it's new, it's a little different, but I think we're really good at coming out and sort of adjusting how we need to to any given team and any style of play.”
Aside from an open shot from Florida State centre back Emily Madril within the penalty box in the 95th minute, the Seminoles recorded a lot of shots on goal, but few good looks. Despite the Blue Devils allowing an insane 841-122 accurate pass margin to the Seminoles, and purposely holding itself to a nearly-inconceivable 0.09 expected goals (xG), it held Florida State to 1.53 xG—which is nearly zero when you consider that the Blue Devils almost always defensively over-perform there.
“It's not always the best decision to sit back and defend, but I think that was the best way we could play this team, and we did it. We went hard,” said Ruthie Jones. “And we played the whole game, and gave them nothing, really. So I think, although it looks more defensive, it's exactly where we wanted them. We gave them nothing. As the game went on, we stayed in, and we fought all game, and that's really all we could ask for.”
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Duke was the only team in the country who could’ve pulled this off. No other team had the combination of defensive depth and talent that the Blue Devils did, no other team could have changed its alignment as easily as the Blue Devils did, no other team could have committed to building a wall for an entire game and stick to it.
Despite the result in penalties, the Blue Devils did it all. There is no debating that this is one of the best teams in the country, and one that could’ve won it all had either Ruthie Jones or Florida State goalie Cristina Roque jumped a different way once or twice.
“We made a decision: 'Do we sit back or do we change things and go for the win?' And you know, I'll sit by our decision. I think we made a really good decision,” said Church. "And the girls were 100% on board with our decision. So you know, it's a tough one. It's a tough one.”