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Pluck, Cooper lead Duke women’s soccer past Arkansas in 2021 season-opener

Freshman Michelle Cooper scored a goal in her first career start against Arkansas.
Freshman Michelle Cooper scored a goal in her first career start against Arkansas.

For the first time since March 10, 2020, the fans were back in Durham for a regular season home game.

And the Blue Devils delivered. 

No. 6 Duke took down No. 13 Arkansas 3-1 in a physical regular season home-opener that featured six yellow cards and 27 fouls. It also featured a breakout freshman forward and not one, but two goals scored on penalty kicks just two minutes apart. 

The crowd, no longer just rows of cardboard cutouts, loved it.

“We had a really, really good crowd, it was just fantastic to hear them behind us,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “Families here supporting—it’s great. It's great to be back and hopefully things will continue. We'll take it one game at a time. We had a big-time performance today.”

From the get-go, it was clear this was going to be a physical matchup, with the Razorbacks getting just grabby enough to affect the Blue Devils’ play without bringing too much attention from the referees. But as play heated up, so did the intensity on the field, and small grabs turned into blatant pulls. 

After 23 minutes of play, near-goal opportunities for both squads, and a yellow card on both teams, the Razorbacks broke through off a messy sequence in the box from the Blue Devils and some clever passing. And the Arkansas faithful who had made the trip to Koskinen began to ramp up their cheers, drowning out the larger contingent of Duke fans.

But the Razorbacks didn’t get much else to cheer for—the rest of the game belonged to Duke.

Eighteen minutes after Arkansas’s goal and two more Razorback yellow cards later, the Blue Devils found the back of the net off the foot of forward Michelle Cooper, their sole freshman starter.

First career-game, first career-start, and first career-goal—it doesn’t get much cleaner than that. She’s the first to score in her first career-start since Ella Stevens in 2016. 

“It was a great feeling,” Cooper said of scoring in the way she did, but she was quick to turn the focus back to her team. “I was just really happy that the team was supporting me and everything. And I'm just glad that we were able to come out and show ourselves. It was rocky at first, but they're so supportive, so energetic—we all feed off each other, which is great.”

Neither team would find the goal again before the halftime whistle (though the Razorbacks did pick up their fourth yellow card of the half), but it was clear the momentum was with Duke.

And it didn’t take long into the second-half for the Blue Devils to prove it.

Mackenzie Pluck, a senior forward, came into the latter period on a mission, attacking the Arkansas backline again and again, showing off her fancy footwork in the process. Her energy quickly paid off, as she was fouled in the box just three minutes into the half. And while it was graduate student Tess Boade that took and made the ensuing penalty, an unofficial assist ought to be credited to Pluck.

But Pluck wanted a goal of her own too. Two minutes after drawing the first penalty, on a similar-looking runup, she drew another. And this time, she stepped up to the penalty marker herself and put it past the keeper. The second penalty not only gave the Blue Devils what proved to be an insurmountable lead, but also tied the program record for third-most number of penalty goals in an entire season.

“Definitely having more of an attacking mindset,” Pluck said of her focus coming into today. “Playing more centrally has been fun. I knew that they were going to be super physical, so we used that against them. We have a very technical team—when you dribble, they're going to foul you. So we anticipated it and worked off each other.”

So, in summary, two minutes, two penalties and, as Church revealed after the game, just two days of practice.

“We just started penalties about two days ago,” Church said. “We took them well, both of them [Boade and Pluck] took them really, really well, which is important for building confidence. Because, as we know, the last couple of tournaments we've been knocked out of on penalty shootouts, so it’s something we’ll do earlier in the year. But it all came from really great attacking play—great mentality, great running [in] space.”

While the Blue Devils wouldn’t score again, they would continue to showcase their attacking mentality, peppering the Razorbacks with shots—11 more to be exact, many requiring tough saves from the Razorback keeper.

And, at the same time, the Duke defense held Arkansas without a shot of its own for the entirety of the second-half. 

When the final second of the second period ticked off the clock and the Blue Devils had wrapped up their fourth win in a row in a season-opener, the focus immediately shifted to resting for Sunday. In their quickest turnaround since the fall portion of the 2020 season, Duke will face off against No. 19 Washington at 12 p.m. in Koskinen Stadium. 

“This is a big two-game weekend,” said Church. “We got the first one, that was great, but now we have to focus in on the second one and just correct some of the things that we did. Now we have to just focus on our recovery and getting rest.”

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