If it wasn’t clear already, the Blue Devils are for real.
New national No. 2 Duke travels to Charlottesville, Va., Thursday to take on No. 7 Virginia at Klöckner Stadium in what looks to be another stern test for both sides and an exciting match for neutral fans. The Blue Devils (7-0-0, 1-0-0 in the ACC) are hoping to continue their hot streak and build on a 1-0 win against current-No. 4 North Carolina last weekend while the Cavaliers (8-1-0, 1-0-0 in the ACC) are looking to spoil what thus far has been a party season for Duke.
The Blue Devils have thundered through their opening seven games on their way to the program’s second-best start ever. One could make the argument that it’s Duke’s best and most impressive start to a season yet, as in its rampage it has dismantled No. 10 Stanford, No. 16 Arkansas and most recently—and notably—the fourth-ranked Tar Heels.
Just over half of their games played have been against top-25 opposition (according to the current United Soccer Coaches Poll) and the Blue Devils have looked not just capable but convincing in each. Against ranked opponents, Duke has scored six goals and conceded two, and on the season averages a staggering seven goals per single concession. Virginia, to its credit, has also been immense so far, downing No. 18 Michigan (in an exhibition), No. 13 West Virginia and No. 19 Santa Clara, with its only loss coming to No. 12 Penn State.
The ACC on the whole is a stacked conference this year, with four teams in the top-10 of the rankings and, as of Tuesday, the top two spots. There’s a genuine chance that whoever comes on top in this conference will lift the College Cup trophy in November, meaning each game is not only regionally but nationally significant.
“Every game we play in the ACC is going to be a tough game,” senior defender Delaney Graham said. “We’re ready for that challenge and, coming off of [North Carolina], we’re really excited to play Virginia.”
If the Blue Devils hope to leave Charlottesville with a win and a grip on their destiny, they will have to shut down the Cavalier offense and respond with their own attacking ruthlessness. Virginia has scored 25 goals to Duke’s 21 in the regular season and will no doubt be looking for blood on Thursday.
“There aren’t many better attacks in the country,” head coach Robbie Church said. “They’re very comfortable on the ball and they can score from distance. They could [even] score from Australia.”
“Every year we’ve played Virginia, it’s always been the biggest defensive preparation for us,” Graham added. “It takes a lot of physical and mental preparation to defend those girls. We’re not going to give them too much credit but we also can’t underestimate them.”
From a personnel standpoint, Duke will no doubt be leaning on freshman Michelle Cooper (six goals, three assists) and graduate student Tess Boade (three goals, two assists) to threaten Virginia on the attack and on junior goalkeeper Ruthie Jones (19 saves, three goals allowed) to lock down the Blue Devil net. Against North Carolina, Cooper and Boade combined for the lone goal while Jones made six stops to hold out for an impressive clean sheet.
Virginia will hope that junior Diana Ordoñez (eight goals) continues her red-hot form in the final third and that graduate student Laurel Ivory (15 saves, six goals allowed) remains rock-solid between the sticks.
Statistics can only tell you so much, but Virginia has been individually brilliant this year, with five players scoring or assisting on five or more goals each. Woman-marking, tight defense and clear communication are all musts for the Blue Devils if they hope to shut the Cavaliers down and snuff out any individual sparks.
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“I think we’ll spend more time talking about individual players with [Virginia] than we have other teams because I think they’re more of a threat individually than Stanford or UNC was,” Graham said. “We will definitely spend more time focused on how we’re going to defend against them. It’s going to require a lot of that.”
Duke has so far cleared all would-be roadblocks this season with convincing aplomb and set itself on a course for greatness should its hot streak continue. Virginia will no doubt be a grueling test, but if the Blue Devils can pull out a win, they will further stake their claim among the NCAA’s elite with a fourth top-25 victory this season and take another step towards ACC dominance. The Cavaliers are here to play spoiler and with a win could blow the ACC and NCAA doors wide open.
Expect an end-to-end, enthralling 90 minutes of evenly matched teams abundant in tenacity and talent. Regardless of whether you’re a Cavalier or a Blue Devil supporter, enjoy the spectacle; there are sure to be fireworks.