It all comes down to this. After 13 games of mostly elite soccer, the Blue Devils’ tournament prospects come down to just a pair of games.
No. 6 Duke welcomes No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 1 Florida State to Koskinen Stadium Thursday and Sunday, respectively. With No. 7 North Carolina losing to N.C. State Saturday, just one win this week should guarantee an ACC tournament berth for the Blue Devils, while sweeping the home stand could vault them all the way to second place.
The Fighting Irish, on the other hand, likely stay in third regardless of their result; winning would give them an outside shot at second, though. And the Seminoles are closing their season against each of the other top-four teams in the conference.
Duke (10-2-1, 4-2-1 in the ACC) outscored Pitt and Wake Forest 7-0 after dropping a 2-1 heartbreaker to N.C. State, while Notre Dame (12-2-1, 6-1) had an eight-game winning streak broken by No. 2 Virginia in a thriller that went down to the wire.
“We have a really good Notre Dame team. [I’ve] been very impressed with Notre Dame,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I think they're very similar to us. Their formation is very similar. What they like to do, a lot of things that we like to do with the ball; they like transition. They've got three players up front that are really good…
“[Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian]'s got it rolling. They're a veteran team; they returned almost all their players…so they may be even stronger than they were last year.”
Florida State (14-0, 7-0) is, on the other hand, still the best team in the country—and quite possibly the best in decades.
Both opponents present a kind of attack that Duke hasn’t seen much this season. The Blue Devils opened their year against now-No. 4 Arkansas, an offensive force, and limited it to just three shots. They lost a tight match to the battering ram that is the Cavaliers last month, but Duke didn’t have star striker Michelle Cooper or wing back Olivia Migli available for that game. The Blue Devils are 10-1-0 when Cooper plays and they’re 9-1-0 with Migli, so they will greatly need both players to continue their excellent play on both sides of the ball.
“I think it's gonna be the first time that we can try to give them a taste of their own medicine—being back in their half, keeping the ball,” Duke centre back Caitlin Cosme said. “I think Florida State's really, really great at that, and I think that's why they punish teams; because they are so possession-oriented, and they're good at it. And I think when you add someone like Michelle, [Mackenzie] Pluck, Tess [Boade] on top of their back line, it puts pressure on them. And they're gonna freak out. And I think you're gonna see a lot more turnovers from them. You're gonna see them not being used to teams actually just pressing them and pressing them and not stopping.
“After the Wake Forest game, I looked at pretty much my whole back five, and I was like, ‘Wow, guys, I wasn't that tired that game? I don't know why I wasn't that tired?’ And Tess turned around and said, ‘Well, that's because Michelle and our midfield and me and Pluck, were pressing the s*** out of Wake Forest the whole time, they couldn't get out.’”
If the front line’s pressing and overall defensive play is going to advantage Duke, it’s the team's scoring that’s going to be the deciding factor. The Blue Devils saw Florida State thrice last year, and all three outcomes were the result of their subpar finishing: Pluck missed a couple chip shots in October, Florida State netted shots on goal at an unsustainable rate in November and Duke played more defensively in May.
This year, however, the Blue Devils have easily their best offense in years; all three of their starting offensive players have arguments for all-conference honors. A healthy Duke is an attacking force that few teams can contend with. It just needs to prove that its early-season wins weren't flukes.
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“I think in the past years that we've played Florida State, we haven't had the attacking abilities that we do now,” Cosme said. “Look, they're a fantastic team. They are a great, great team. But I think this is one of the first years that I truly believe that our team thinks that we are better, and that we can beat them; and it's not going to be us sitting in the whole game, hoping for a counterattack, wishing it goes to penalty kicks. I think this upcoming game is like ‘Wow we are tit-for-tat here. We're going to try to go after them and see if they can handle it.’
“Again, they are a great, great team. I think they respect us a lot, as we respect them too. And it's going to be a great game, it really will. I'm hoping first we get through Notre Dame, and then we're all eyes on Florida State. But we're so excited for this upcoming week. Honestly.”
If the Blue Devils want to maximize their chances of winning a title this year, they’ll want a one-seed in the NCAA tournament. If they want to maximize their chances of a one-seed, they’ll want a win or two in the ACC tournament. If they want to maximize their chances of that, they’ll want a home game in that tournament.
And that means winning this week.