Another year, another Blue Devil team looking towards championships. After coming into 2020 with College Cup aspirations, Duke made it closer to the Final Four than any other team who missed, technically ending its season on a tie (as Florida State, arguably one of the greatest teams of all time, advanced past the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight on penalties).
"I want to win, and I want to win big in this program," head coach Robbie Church said. "And we want to win trophies, and we want to win all the time."
Winning all the time has become the norm for the Blue Devils, who've used the success of the 2015-17 teams to vault their recruiting to the perennial top-five level. And a small, yet stellar, freshman class joins the vast majority of the 2020 squad that put up the program's best season in four years.
The catch is that the same NCAA decision by which preseason-No. 6 Duke can return three super seniors allows other teams to do the same. So No. 1 Florida State and No. 7 Clemson return every player of consequence, and No. 4 Virginia brings back midfielder Taryn Torres for an extra year. The one team the Blue Devils do close the gap on is No. 3 North Carolina, which adds the top freshman in the nation, but loses three standouts to the pros.
Duke has lost centre back Taylor Mitchell, one of the 2020 team's few most important players, to medical school. But the combination of the freshmen, development from a strong sophomore class and Michigan State transfer Bria Schrotenboer, albeit on a minutes restriction, should push the Blue Devils' super-senior core—the last remnants of the legendary 2017 team—past even last year's success. -Em Adler
New player to watch: Michelle Cooper
It's been a while since Duke has had a forward make a Best XI team. Michelle Cooper has already broken that trend, as one of TopDrawerSoccer's three preseason Freshman Best XI forwards.
"Obviously you got to see some glimpses of what Michelle Cooper is." Church said after Duke's home exhibition against Georgia. "We knew coming in; she hasn't missed a beat coming in at this point."
Cooper certainly showed out in that Georgia matchup, showcasing elite athleticism both on- and off-ball and the kind of one-on-one ability off the dribble that Duke hasn't had since Kayla McCoy in 2017. If there's one thing that could truly vault the Blue Devils to a championship, it's a winning individual goal-scorer. -Adler
Returning player to watch: Katie Groff
Box-to-box midfielder Sophie Jones is a potential top-10 player in the country. Wing back Delaney Graham is one of the best wing defenders and most athletic touchline players in the nation. Tess Boade is a future NJ/NY Gotham FC forward. Goalie Ruthie Jones and centre back Caitlin Cosme are a defensive duo to match anyone.
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We know who these stars are. We're about to find out if Katie Groff can join them.
Groff got her first start against Vanderbilt last spring, and played the majority of two of Duke's three postseason games. The former No. 37 recruit was a pivotal cog in Duke's gameplan against Florida State, and Church expects her to get a shot this year, both at holding mid and centre back. What she lacks in straight-line speed, she makes up for in good feel, extreme strength and excellent ball control. Should she establish herself there, the Blue Devils will go three-deep at holding mid and be able to move Sophie Jones all over the field. -Adler
Most anticipated matchup: Florida State, Oct. 24
The Blue Devils will have no shortage of tough matches this season, with five of the top seven teams in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll hailing from the ACC, including Duke clocking in at No. 6. But, after both of the Blue Devils' 2020 postseasons were cut short by the Seminoles—first with a loss in the ACC tournament semifinals in the fall, and then in a heartbreaker in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in the spring—you can be sure that when Florida State comes up to Durham for Duke’s final regular season home game, the Blue Devils will be ready to prove themselves. A win here would catapult Duke into the upper-tier of the ACC and provide it with the momentum to make a deep run in the postseason. -Jonathan Browning
Each season provides a fresh run at the ultimate goal of the women’s soccer program: a national championship. This year, the Blue Devil roster features a wealth of experience, including all three of Duke’s captains from last season—each of whom chose to take advantage of a fifth year of eligibility offered by the NCAA due to COVID-19. Experience alone won’t take them all the way, but alongside a deep midfield and some dynamic players on the wings, the Blue Devils look set to make their way back to the College Cup for the first time since 2017. -Browning
After the long, drawn-out season that was 2020, the worst-case scenario for the Blue Devils is a series of uninspired performances or injuries as they adjust to playing multiple games a week once again. Seemingly always in the cards is a lack of offensive production, though a pair of exhibition matches in preseason should have helped assuage some of those worries. Ultimately, this team has too much experience and talent to fall too far in the ACC, but don’t rule out an upset loss in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. -Browning
Browning: 10-3-3 (7-2-1 in the ACC), loss in ACC Championship, loss in College Cup semifinals
Adler: 11-3-2 (7-2-1 in the ACC), loss in ACC semifinals, loss in College Cup semifinals