As the clock ticked down toward zero, it looked as if the Blue Devils would be taking another tough-luck decision this month. After a rough first half, they had controlled nearly every minute of the second 45, and a few inches here and there had been the difference between a scoreless draw and a multi-goal lead.
But when Maggie Graham’s header reached the back of the net with just 104 seconds left in regulation, all that mattered was Duke finally taking the lead.
No. 3 Duke snatched victory from the jaws of a draw Friday with a 1-0 victory at Syracuse, the Blue Devils avoiding what would have been their first winless streak since September 2021. Graham scored the game-winner off of a second-chance service after the Orange turned away a corner kick. That marked the junior’s fourth-career goal against Syracuse, two-thirds of her career total.
“We had eight days of training, and I think eight days of training helped our rest. [But] I think it took off our rhythm of play, especially in the first half,” Blue Devil head coach Robbie Church said after the game. “We're still just a little hesitant out there right now. But we will get there … we did make a change in the formation, and got more people forward later in the second half… and then we knew Maggie was obviously good in the air; she came back in [in] the second quarter of the half, and finished a nice goal on a cross from Sophie [Jones].”
Duke’s second-half barrage was bound to wear down the Orange (7-2, 0-1 in the ACC) eventually—but with overtime a thing of the past for collegiate soccer, the Blue Devils (6-2, 1-0) did not have the luxury of time on their side. But in the 89th minute, their seventh second-half corner kick led to a couple of services into the box, the second of which went far post and found Graham out-jumping her defender for a header the Syracuse goalie left uncontested.
“Even when things aren't going well, [we’re] just trying to stay positive,” said midfielder Sophie Jones. “We know that we have a talented team, and when things aren't going our way, we continue to make chances and something's gonna fall.”
The Blue Devils finally began playing like the No. 3 team in the country a few minutes into the second half. After getting their initial possession pushed back into their defending third, they were able to spark the offense with something they had struggled to achieve all season: physicality.
Sophomore striker Michelle Cooper got Duke’s attack started, nearly hitting a rocket to the far-side upper 90 after freshman midfielder Devin Lynch secured a transition touch by winning a tough header. Within the next 10 minutes, the Blue Devils powered themselves to four second-half shots thanks to aggressive tackling and strong handling from Kat Rader and Mackenzie Pluck.
The Syracuse pressure responded well, pushing the run of possession back toward Duke goalie Ruthie Jones. It did not help the Blue Devils that Rader left the game after taking a ball to the face, either.
Rader came back in at the 68th minute, and within her first eight minutes back on the pitch, Duke had four near misses at a tie-breaking goal. She herself got as close to scoring as any Blue Devil in the 78th minute, when Delaney Graham crossed from the near post to an open goal, but Rader was inches too far downfield to get a touch on it. Cooper appeared to make up for that mistake just two minutes later when she one-touched a through pass to the back of the net—but she had mistimed her run and was flagged for being offsides.
“We went into a three-back [formation in the second half],” said Sophie Jones. “So we dropped a little bit lower, and I think when we were able to switch the ball, that opened up space in the midfield. Our center backs did a great job coming forward and taking their space, and from there, that opened up space to come back inside and that really helped us open up the game.”
Despite the Blue Devils’ quality play over the past couple of weeks, the Orange opened their game in control. Through the first 31 minutes, Syracuse had outshot Duke 5-1 (3-1 on goal), and the Blue Devils struggled to maintain possession on the Orange’s side of the field. Though its chance did not make a difference on the scoreboard, it was clear that Duke’s first-half return to a 4-3-3 was unsuccessful.
For the third time in as many games, Duke found itself on the receiving end of frequent high press. And for the third time in as many games, Duke struggled to maintain possession as a result. Though they relaxed in the later part of the half, the Orange’s pressure had made enough of an impression on the Blue Devils’ center backs; the team’s usual building-up was nowhere to be found. Duke instead resorted to more direct play. But with personnel better suited to its usual long, methodical style of possession, it found difficulty in turning back-line possession into quality looks at the net.
“We'll get through this stretch—but we can get through this stretch winning games, and that's what we have to do,” said Church. “But we have to be better against Boston College on Thursday night, and we've got just a few days to do that.”
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