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No. 2 Duke women’s soccer takes down UNC Greensboro in home opener

Maggie Graham's brace proved the difference in Duke's win Sunday against UNC Greensboro.
Maggie Graham's brace proved the difference in Duke's win Sunday against UNC Greensboro.

Everyone is a little bit sluggish when they get up in the morning, but wakes up as the day goes on. For the Blue Devils, a sluggish start to the season appears to be giving way to their waking-up.

No. 2 Duke rolled to a win in its home opener Sunday, besting UNC Greensboro 3-1. Junior attacking midfielder Maggie Graham recorded her second-career brace, while senior midfielder Julia Burnell scored her first-career goal off of an assist from sophomore striker Michelle Cooper. The Blue Devils struggled to connect early, with misplaced give-and-gos and turnovers from passes sent to the wrong foot. New players were still seemingly building chemistry with the roster and were sometimes caught off-guard when holding midfielder Sophie Jones, wingback Delaney Graham and Cooper sent touches their way.

“I'm really happy, because I thought once we went to our bench, I thought they played really, really well,” said head coach Robbie Church. “I thought that the movement that they brought to the field was really, really good. Our shape was really good in the second half. I thought the speed of play was better in the second half.”

The Blue Devils (2-0) went ahead for good on a first-half buzzer-beater that was simply Cooper at her best. With the stadium announcer counting down from 10, holding midfielder Sophie Jones grabbed an errant pass from a UNC Greensboro defender and threaded a through pass to Cooper, who ran behind it and fired a left-footed rocket to the near post. Spartan goalie Abby Buchholz knocked it away, but right back to Cooper, who chipped it over two defenders while falling down. Burnell barely had to move to get the pass and redirected it with a header to the back of the net for her first-career goal. Duke led 2-1 with one second left in the period.

For most of the first half, however, it felt like the Blue Devils were playing too cleanly; their passing and game flow were up to par, but they had only taken three live-ball shots on goal through the first 44.5 minutes. Duke's lone goal came from attacking midfielder Maggie Graham on a penalty kick after she was shouldered to the turf on a drive through the box. The rest of the Duke offense was marked by smart play and long possessions, but the finishing touches were off. Be it shots wide or passes into easy interceptions, the attacking synergy of last year’s Blue Devils was nowhere to be found.

“It’s difficult [to rebuild team chemistry], but at the same time, we start every practice with [a] passing pattern [drill]; and even though those are just with cones and on a corner of the field, it's so obvious that that stuff comes into play in games,” said Graham. “And I think we all have certain things engraved into our heads that we know someone's going to do with the ball when they get in a certain spot, so it makes it a lot easier.”

Graham in particular helped to jump-start the drowsy offense against the Spartans (1-1). As Duke’s midfield and back line kept the ball on UNC Greensboro’s half for most of the game—the Spartans had only one possession in Duke’s third the entire first half—Graham was able to take advantage in the fifth minute. After Blue Devil center back Emily Royson sent a UNC Greensboro clearance back upfield, Graham tackled the Spartan center back trying to corral the ball, juked another one and dashed into the box. A defender cut Graham off and shouldered her to the ground, setting up the opening score.

“I scored two goals on Syracuse my freshman year and another goal my sophomore year on Syracuse. I’ve only ever scored on Syracuse,” Graham said. “It was really exciting [to score against another team]... The jump [into the starting lineup] was a little hard, but just working in the spring, working here in the preseason just to get on the field and play every second to my best ability, I think it’s just been great and I'm really excited.”

Graham secured the brace in the 69th minute off of a corner kick, simply reading the ball’s path perfectly and out-jumping her marker to head in her fifth-career goal. The score came on the ninth of Duke’s 12 corners on the day—tied for the team’s most in a game since March 2021. With the Blue Devils being among the leaders in corners per game year after year, that’s a positive sign. It’s a sign that the attack was able to play smart and set up scoring opportunities even when its initial runs weren’t there.

“We lost three great players [since last year], and they’re playing in the pros now. And we’ve replaced them with freshmen or younger players,” said Church. “We’re not at our full potential. I thought we saw more of it in the second half than I have the other three halves that we played up to this point in our regular season… And now what we have to do is really be able to score goals… We're not going to have that many chances against good teams.”

Duke now travels to Knoxville, Tenn., for a Thursday game against Tennessee, the SEC preseason favorite. The 11th-ranked Volunteers are coming off of a draw against No. 23 SMU.

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