Each of Duke's past two seasons has ended the same: a tough loss in the NCAA quarterfinals, tantalizingly close to a return to the College Cup. This season is not shaping up to be more of the same.
“We definitely felt like we fell short last year,” senior Sophie Jones told The Chronicle. “But that just fuels our fire and makes us that much more excited to try and get back there this year. I think that really motivates us every day and is definitely in the back of our minds.”
Despite not getting to Santa Clara, Calif., last November, the 2022 Blue Devils enter the year as heralded as any team in program history; their preseason No. 2 ranking is tied with 2011 and 2015 for their highest-ever—two years in which Duke finished the season as the national runner-up.
A host of factors have contributed to perch Duke on the precipice of greatness: A deep pool of talent graduating from the collegiate ranks to the NWSL; the Blue Devils retaining two of their five senior starters, ensuring they'd suffer less than other teams; a strong incoming class across the country, and Duke securing the No. 3 recruiting class; the continued loosening of North Carolina’s stranglehold on recruiting; and most notably, chaotic upheaval at Florida State.
To top it all off, a third conference title for head coach Robbie Church looks within reach. Florida State is the preseason No. 1 in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, but the coaches’ poll often relies too much on last year's results and doesn't reflect strong changeover (see: Stanford down at No. 21); the Seminoles were only projected to finish fourth in-conference by the ACC coaches. No. 10 North Carolina enters the year with a plethora of talent, but a similar plethora of questions about which players can headline a top-flight team. No. 4 Virginia’s front line graduated the best forward in the ACC and its projected leading goal-scorer is coming off an ACL tear.
Scheduling, for once, is lending the Blue Devils a bit of a helping hand. Duke gets to ramp up its conference play against progressively tougher opponents (Syracuse, Boston College, and N.C. State) before a home match against Virginia. The Blue Devils then get a couple of lighter opponents at home (Pittsburgh, Wake Forest) before heading to Tallahassee, Fla. That should help the team along, following what Church has once again ensured is one of the toughest non-conference slates in the country. -Em Adler
New players to watch: Kat Rader, Jenna Royson
Once Michelle Cooper and Carina Lageyre return from the U-20 World Cup, Duke will be able to play its full starting lineup—one that includes four new faces.
Among those faces are three freshmen in attacking midfielder Lageyre, striker Kat Rader and holding midfielder Devin Lynch, ranked by TopDrawerSoccer as the Nos. 4, 5, and 10 recruits in the country, respectively.
“We're happy with all our freshmen,” said Church. “So we're excited about that.”
Rader is the second top recruit that Duke has gotten up top in as many years, following in the footsteps of Cooper last season. That's a welcome change of pace for the Blue Devils, who have struggled to bring in top forwards after Imani Dorsey and Kayla McCoy graduated. The infusion of Cooper relieved Mackenzie Pluck and attacking midfielder Tess Boade of a lot of their previous offensive burdens, allowing them to play more to their strengths and flourish.
Last year's attack struggled whenever one of Cooper, Pluck, or Boade was off the pitch. With Boade now gone to the pros, Rader needs to fill in for this unit to be championship-caliber. -Adler
The Blue Devils’ newest graduate transfer comes straight out of Georgetown and appears ready to make some noise. Royson served as the Hoyas' 5-foot-8 defensive obstacle for any striker hoping to hit the net. In her four seasons at Georgetown, she proved herself a force on the field and earned 63 starts in the 78 games she saw action in.
The Toms River, N.J., native was a focal point of the Hoya defense throughout her time there, even as a freshman, when she led a defense that allowed only 10 goals throughout the season. To put that into perspective, in the 2021 season, Duke allowed 12. Royson took part in 14 Hoya shutouts as her team went as far as the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, beating Duke 4-1 along the way in the third round.
In the past three years, Royson has made a mark with goals and assists, two All-Big East Second Team selections and both a conference championship and NCAA tournament second-round appearance. A Division I veteran, Royson not only looks to add expertise and experience, but also quick chemistry with several fellow Blue Devils that she already knows—graduate midfielder Mackenzie Pluck, her former PDA Club teammate, and of course, her sister, junior defender Emily Royson. -Ana Young
Returning player to watch: Michelle Cooper
There's no question about who Cooper is at this point: arguably the best player in the country. The sophomore was one of four undergraduates and one of only two sophomores to be named to the U.S. Women's National Team preliminary roster for this past summer’s CONCACAF Championship. She won both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards in the CONCACAF U-20. She finished 2021 sixth in points per game in program history—a history that includes several All-Americans and first-round draftees from the front line. And she did all that as a freshman.
Cooper is not only a physical marvel, from wicked acceleration to jarring lateral quickness, but is also supremely cerebral. She has a knack for staying onsides while still lulling defenders to sleep without the ball, and executes a two-player game with other strikers excellently. And on top of all that, she's a defensive menace pressuring opposing backlines.
Cooper may not be some X-factor for Duke. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't appreciate every minute of what could be the most talented career of any Blue Devil, ever. -Adler
Most anticipated matchup: North Carolina, Sept. 8
Last year, Duke handed the Tar Heels their first Tobacco Road rivalry loss since 2015 and their first-ever loss at Dorrance Field. Team co-captain Caitlin Cosme declared, “There's a new era, and it's a Duke era.” North Carolina proceeded to, by its own standards, limp its way into and quickly out of the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels have since gotten healthy, lost a chunk of great talent and added some more to replace it. This game will be a measuring stick for both squads, but consider: what kind of shockwaves could it send through the sport if the Blue Devils were able to best the Tar Heels in back-to-back years? -Adler
Just like they hoped last season, once more a national championship is in the cards. Reigning champion Florida State returns to competition with its two leading scorers and star defenders, as well as the top spot in preseason poll. But Duke also has that same energy, with the return of star goalkeeper Ruthie Jones, Cooper, Sophie Jones, graduate student Delaney Graham and more, along with some talented newcomers to the Duke family. No one should be doubting this group heading into this year, and if all goes according to plan, the Blue Devils have a clear shot at securing a title. -Young
On the other hand, freshmen are freshmen. Resting your title hopes on three 18-year-olds being able to compete with established stars is a common way to be disappointed. And then there's the injury bug; with Bruster set to play her first regulation minutes since suffering a torn ACL, who's to say her ramp-up isn't slower than anticipated, and the backs get worn out having to go 80-plus minutes a night? That's not a bad team, of course, but it's not too different from the 2016 or 2018 teams—extremely talented, but stretched a bit too far one way or the other. -Adler
Adler: 13-3-1 (8-1-1 in the ACC), ACC Championship, loss in NCAA Championship Game
Young: 14-2-1 (9-0-1 in the ACC), ACC Championship, National Champions
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.