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No. 5 Duke women’s soccer ready for monumental top-10 matchup against No. 10 Stanford

Senior Mackenzie Pluck scored the game-winning goal against Washington.
Senior Mackenzie Pluck scored the game-winning goal against Washington.

The last time Duke met Stanford, the No. 20 Blue Devils pulled off a massive upset against the No. 3 Cardinal in the 2015 Elite Eight.

The last time Duke met Stanford in a Nike Classic, the No. 6 Cardinal beat the No. 18 Blue Devils 2-0 in 2014.

The last time Duke met Stanford in a top-10 matchup came 10 years ago, with the No. 1 Cardinal besting the No. 3 Blue Devils 1-0 for the 2011 National Championship.

With Stanford owning a 2-1-0 record against Duke in Nike Classics, the Blue Devils not only have the opportunity to even that mark, but to record their first non-Clemson top-10 win since 2017. It all comes down to 7 p.m. Thursday at Koskinen Stadium, when the No. 10 Cardinal return for the Duke Nike Classic against the No. 5 Blue Devils.

“The history of Stanford is a great history in women's soccer—three national championships… they're just a well-coached program that produces national team players; great athletically, good soccer IQ,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. 

Despite both being back up to title contention, the routes the Blue Devils and Cardinal have taken to get to here since their 2015 meeting have been quite different.

Stanford came out like gangbusters in 2016 and only failed to win three of its games before a historically shocking second-round loss to Santa Clara. In 2017, the Cardinal added two future first-round draft picks, in addition to the presumptive future-greatest-player-in-the-world Catarina Macario. That 2017 team dropped its third game to No. 8 Florida before winning 22 straight games, including six top-10 wins, for a national title. They lost just one game the next year too, but that was the College Cup semifinal. Stanford again lost just one game in 2019, and made it to the College Cup for a dramatic third championship.

The Cardinal went a shocking 6-6-2 last season without Macario and Kiki Pickett, and missed selection for the NCAA tournament despite having the peripheral stats and talent to warrant inclusion. This year, they’ve returned Madison Haley and added a strong freshman class, while the injury problems of the spring have resolved.

Duke lost some talent from that 2015 squad, but got all the way back to the Elite Eight in 2016 before getting knocked out. The Blue Devils overcorrected in 2017 with an all-time collegiate soccer team, going 23-2-1 and falling just a UCLA penalty kick short of the championship game. That team lost a record six players to the NWSL draft, and Duke was knocked out in the 2018 Sweet Sixteen and the 2019 second round while struggling to record top wins (except against Clemson, who’ve lost as a top-10 team to the Blue Devils four straight times, including exhibitions).

Last season showed a Duke team with improved talent at the midfield, wings and depth, enough to challenge No. 1 Florida State. And it has now started off its 2021 by going 4-0 in non-conference play, including wins against the preseason Nos. 13, 18 and 19 teams. This is the third time the Blue Devils have started 4-0-0 under Church; there was 2008, but Duke hadn’t played any ranked teams, and 2011, when their only ranked opponents were No. 21 South Carolina and No. 1 Notre Dame. 2015 was the only one of these years the Blue Devils went unbeaten in their first five games; they went 4-0-1, including a tie against then-No.6 and eventual national champ Penn State and win over then-No. 15 USC.

Those impressive starts in 2011 and 2015? Those were the two previous years that Duke went to the national championship game.

“We scheduled this game for a purpose. And that was: we knew it would be the best team that we would play in our non-conference season getting ready,” Church said. “If you look forward on our schedule, you see that we have [No. 2 North] Carolina in the opening ACC weekend, and we have [No. 3] Virginia. So we needed to play another top-10, [top]-five team, to let them show us where we are at that level. I think so far, so good. We’re very happy, very proud. I think the girls have done great with where we are. But now we gotta play, one of the big dogs of women's soccer.”

If this is truly to be Duke’s year, then there’s a decent number of demons it’s going to have to exorcise. Thursday is the first opportunity to put a dent in that list.

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