Year after year, Duke women’s soccer finds itself on the verge of breaking through into the sport’s truly elite tier and coming out with a loss. Be it outplaying all-time greats and still losing, getting eliminated through self-inflicted mistakes or squandering home-field advantage, the Blue Devils trying to break into women’s soccer’s upper echelon has often seemed a Sisyphean task.
So with Duke on the verge of shifting the sport’s balance of power, it was only fitting that something uniquely crushing would befall it.
The third-ranked Blue Devils fell to No. 2 North Carolina 3-0 Thursday, the Tar Heels extending their unbeaten streak at Koskinen Stadium despite playing in front of its second-largest crowd since capacity was expanded in 2015. North Carolina shut down Duke’s passing throughout the game and dominated the midfield. The teams gave each other no quarter in the early stages, but the Tar Heels scored the only goal of the first half. For the fourth time in their past five games, the Blue Devils played better in the second half, but it meant little when they were still unable to maintain long possessions.
“Congratulations to North Carolina. They played great,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “They played really well, they swarmed us. I thought we had good effort; we didn't have good quality. We've got to make better decisions with the ball. But they made us make poor decisions… They looked like they had 13 players on the field. And they came ready to play. We didn't. We were not as ready to handle the pressure that they played for us.”
Following in the footsteps of last year’s historically foul-laden affair, the teams started getting chippy after the first 15 minutes. A total of eight fouls and yellow cards were assessed in a nine-minute span in the early first half, including a yellow on North Carolina center back Tori Hansen for shoving Duke striker Michelle Cooper out of bounds in the 19th minute. Hansen nearly earned a second yellow, and thus a disqualification, just a couple of minutes later for a tackle on Cooper, but a common foul was assessed.
The physicality seemed to enliven the Tar Heels (6-1). North Carolina star midfielder Sam Meza earned a yellow card in the 25th minute and responded by playing like the best player on the pitch. As arguably the fastest player on the turf, she hounded Duke holding midfielder Sophie Jones on defense and blew by her on offense. With Jones seemingly flustered by Meza’s play, she was unable to be the engine of the Blue Devils’ passing, and Duke (5-2) was stuck on its heels.
North Carolina’s dominance of possession came to a head in the 34th minute. A cross earned the Tar Heels their first corner of the game. North Carolina forward Emily Moxley served a perfect ball, and Hansen, who used all of her 5-foot-10 frame to leap higher than a pair of 5-foot-7 Duke defenders, headed the ball past goalie Ruthie Jones for the opening score.
“We're surprised, because a week ago today, we were [in] such great, great form of keeping the ball, keeping possession, passing,” said Church. “And then, tonight, the pressure was just overwhelming… They were very physical. So, they beat us in all aspects of the game tonight.”
At halftime, the teams’ stats were fairly similar—the Blue Devils had one shot on goal to North Carolina’s two and trailed in possession by only six percentage points—but the ball had been in Duke’s back third more than three times as much as it had been in the Tar Heels’. The second half started as the first half ended: The Tar Heels blitzed the Blue Devils’ opening possession and ended up with a wide-open service from just above the box. Two minutes later, North Carolina picked up its second corner kick, and Hansen once again got open cutting to the goal. This time, her header went directly to Jones.
For as much as the Blue Devils had been outplayed to that point, their one-goal deficit was because the Tar Heels were winning in the margins; Duke’s defense had largely played quite well. That meant that all the Blue Devils needed was to clean up their passing, go on a blazing run or get a bit lucky with a North Carolina mishap. Duke’s prospects of getting that equalizer evaporated in the 74th minute, when Meza sent a 40-yard service toward the Blue Devils’ goal. Tar Heel forward Emily Murphy ran past Duke wingback Elle Piper and slipped unmarked toward the goal. Center back Jenna Royson missed an attempted deflection and Murphy simply redirected the ball past Jones to give North Carolina a 2-0 lead.
The early fouls led to a set of quality chances for Duke off of a pair of direct kicks and a corner. Each set piece brought the Blue Devils a little closer to scoring than the last, with the second free kick just missing an open Mackenzie Pluck on a slashing run, and the ensuing corner bouncing around the box.
The Tar Heels tacked on a third goal in the 83rd minute off the foot of senior forward Isabel Cox at the near post. Cox was close to Duke’s last defender, but no flag was raised for offside and North Carolina put the finishing touch on a 3-0 win, its largest margin of victory in the Tobacco Road rivalry since 2014. The Tar Heels improved to 4-0-1 against the Blue Devils in non-conference games.
“We'll be okay. We'll be fine. It's Sept. 8, trophies aren't given out now,” said Church. “This is a lesson; we have to get better. We understand that. We have to grow from this game. We've been in a really, really tough stretch, and I think some of that caught us tonight. But we planned that stretch, and we're better because of the stretch.…
“Hopefully we see [North Carolina] somewhere down the road.”
Duke next travels to Syracuse, where it will open conference play Sept. 16.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.