In 2019, the Blue Devils had a very good defense and good shot-creation, but poor finishing. In 2020, the Blue Devils had an excellent defense, but struggled with both shot-creation and finishing. In 2021, the Blue Devils had an excellent defense, excellent shot-creation and good finishing.
In 2022, though, the Blue Devils have had excellent shot-creation but struggled defensively.
No. 2 Duke suffered its first loss of the season Thursday, taking a 2-1 defeat from No. 3 UCLA at Koskinen Stadium. For the second-straight contest, the Blue Devils seemed sluggish in the early going before warming up and owning the final 60 minutes, and the Bruins took advantage, scoring in the 11th minute and nearly adding another early mark. Duke tied things up before the half, but the Bruins went ahead again on an unguardable shot from star striker Reilyn Turner. A career day from UCLA goalie Lauren Brzykcy, including seven saves in the second half, sealed the final line—just the Blue Devils’ third regular-season loss at home since September 2018.
"[The Bruins] had the big moments, they had an opportunity [to] score goals. And we had opportunities and we didn't score goals. It's not a hard game, in that sense," said Duke head coach Robbie Church. "We have to be a little bit more composed. I want to say: I thought we played pretty well. The real damaging point was the first 20 minutes of the game. And that was the part that I wish we had over."
At no point in the first half did UCLA (4-0) maintain possession for an extended stretch, but that didn’t matter as Duke (4-1) blinked first in the 11th minute. On a Bruin throw-in, center back Jenna Royson mistakenly headed the ball backward from midfield. Fellow center back Emily Royson was marking Turner but tripped while adjusting to the unexpected redirection. As Turner ran by, UCLA had a two-on-two in transition.
A season ago, that likely would not have been a problem; even if one center back misplayed a ball, one of Emily Royson or Caitlin Cosme would be there to back them up. That meant transition was always defended by either the fastest player on the field (Royson) or someone with nearly impeccable fundamentals and acumen (Cosme).
As a result, Turner was left driving with only junior defender Katie Groff upfield. Emily Royson tried to make it competitive, seeming to intentionally foul Turner in the box to turn a would-be easy goal into a penalty. But Turner knocked a perfect shot to the back-left corner to open the scoring.
That was not the first time Thursday that misplays for the Blue Devil back line created Bruin opportunities. Seven minutes in, Turner tried to sneak in behind the backs to get onsides, before receiving a lofted pass from an attacking midfield while sprinting back towards the goal ahead of the backs. Groff, who was marking Turner, tried to get a head on the pass but left Turner wide open. Emily Royson should generally have been able to get to Turner, but was preoccupied with Bruin forward Ally Cook cutting outside and did not immediately pivot toward the ball. Only a poor touch from Turner allowed goalie Ruthie Jones a save.
Just four minutes after the opening goal, Turner knocked a header past Emily Royson on a long Brzykcy goal kick, sprinting past her upfield. Groff backed her up, but Jenna Royson also helped, leaving Cook all alone for a through pass. The only thing preventing another open shot on goal was Emily Royson sprinting back through both of her teammates to force the shot wide.
Multiple times in the second half, during Duke’s extended dominance of possession, UCLA was able to start counters by airing long passes beyond the Blue Devils' center backs, turning Duke possessions into Bruin attacks approaching the box.
"We talked about it coming in: that we wanted to play on our front foot, we wanted to be very, very aggressive and on our front foot. And we didn't. We didn't. We let them be the aggressive team," said Church. "They attacked us, they tossed us around for a little bit. And that was probably, for me, the most disappointing thing. When you have two teams like this, you cannot waste 20 minutes, 25 minutes. I thought we played pretty well after that … But we just threw time away, threw minutes away, and then all of a sudden the game got shorter."
The Blue Devils managed to take control of the game around the 25th minute after graduate midfielder Mackenzie Pluck checked in and a pair of freshmen subbed out. From then through the final buzzer, Duke’s chemistry looked better than it had all season, especially in the attacking third. The two-player game between Cooper and Pluck resembled its unstoppable 2021 self, attacking midfielder Maggie Graham provided excellent connecting, holding midfielder Sophie Jones continued playmaking and wing back Delaney Graham kept improving her offensive game.
Even though the Blue Devils maintained that control through the second half, it was not reflected in the final tally. The box score shows it—they outshot UCLA 11-8—but other than a connection from Pluck to Graham that allowed Cooper to one-touch a crosser for a 38th-minute equalizer, Brzykcy stopped excellent shot after excellent shot. Cooper curling a rocket into the upper 90, Pluck bending a shot to the opposite corner from the side of the box, Maggie Graham getting a hard shot on a loose ball in the goal area—Brzykcy saved them all.
So after Turner nailed the Bruins’ second goal in the 61st minute while falling down and being completely blanketed by Sophie Jones, using the inches-wide gap between Ruthie Jones and the near post, Duke still had chances to even up the score again. But Brzykcy was in the way.
"That's why we play teams like this, so that we learn," said Church. "It's not what you are here in August, it's at the end of the year. But this will help us be better at the end of the year."
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