CARY, N.C.—Soccer is a complicated game. As the most popular sport in the world, played for nearly a millennium, there are more strategies, skills and rules than any one person could ever hope to learn.
But Thursday night, Duke and North Carolina did their best to cram every single thing the sport had to offer within a three-hour period.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils fell in an eight-round penalty shootout to No. 1-seed North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals at WakeMed Soccer Park Thursday night. A scoreless tie that turned into a 7-6 advancement for the Tar Heels in penalties, it was Duke’s second postseason game at WakeMed that went to penalties in the past three years. The game jumped from stage to stage: It opened with 44 minutes of mistake-free soccer from both sides; a Blue Devil red card resulted in a half-hour of Duke trying to maintain the scoreless tie; two yellow cards on Tar Heel forward Tori Dellaperuta gave 38 minutes of 10-on-10 soccer; and when penalty kicks were tied after five rounds, three more rounds of extra penalties were needed to decide who would move onto the ACC championship.
“Really, really proud of our staff. I thought our staff did a phenomenal job of being able to adjust,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “This team is probably the most adaptable team that we’ve ever had. Whatever gets thrown at ‘em, whatever formation we need them to go in—is it a defensive formation, is it an attack[ing]—to be able to change on the fly and just do it. We haven’t worked a lot on player-down [formations]—maybe that’s our fault. But what a great job and what a heart that we showed.”
Against all odds, the Blue Devils managed to keep the game scoreless while down a player. And after North Carolina joined Duke with having only 10 on the pitch, the Blue Devils pushed the Tar Heels back, forcing a competitive pair of overtime periods. Outside of a breakaway for Duke forward Michelle Cooper that ended in her being tackled in North Carolina’s box, neither team got particularly close to scoring.
That brought the Blue Devils to their first penalty shootout since falling to Florida State in the 2020-21 Elite Eight. Duke only converted three shots in that shootout, and only two players who took those penalties are still on the roster—and one of them had been ejected before halftime. Yet after the Blue Devils missed their first attempt, they netted six-straight. That’s more than enough to advance in most worlds, especially given the number of Tar Heel shots that Duke goalie Ruthie Jones got a hand on. But even a Blue Devil team that seemed to have been possessed by a higher power for the preceding two hours could not overcome the inevitability of North Carolina women’s soccer.
“The great thing about this is it’s not a bad situation … we’ve [now] been through the pressure of penalty kicks. So there’s some positive things,” said Church. “But it hurts, obviously, to not advance against North Carolina, because our goal is to win an ACC championship. And we’re not going to be able to fulfill that. But now our goals change, and now our goal is to win an NCAA championship. And if we play like that, with a little bit more discipline, we have shown over the last two-and-a-half-to-three weeks what this team is made of. … We really look forward and embrace that opportunity to play for the national championship.”
The theme of Duke’s first 31 minutes was a team that had fixed its biggest issues from its last meeting with North Carolina. After the Tar Heels dominated the run of possession through its midfielders in that Sept. 8 game, the Blue Devils spent several weeks tinkering with their formation. Their objective was to get more athleticism in the attacking midfield and to shore up the defensive shape. The 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid Duke settled into did just that; Church was able to pull forward farther down and pressure North Carolina’s midfield by going with a man-to-man coverage, pulling the run of play away from the Blue Devils’ goal. The result was a scoring opportunity for Duke just 30 seconds into the game and an evenly matched first half.
That strategy fell apart in the waning seconds of the first half, when attacking midfielder Maggie Graham brought down Dellaperuta from behind on a North Carolina transition chance. An automatic yellow card was on the way for Graham, before Dellaperuta shoved Graham in retaliation—a yellow-worthy offense as well. Graham flipped her off in response—an instant red card for Graham, and according to Church, Duke’s first in his 22-year tenure.
Just like that, the Blue Devils went from an even match to playing a woman down. For most teams, that would be a death knell. But Church has experience playing with his back against a wall, and he reached deep into his pocket and pulled out a strategy he had employed nearly 18 months prior, at that very same field.
Duke came out of halftime in a 5-3-1 formation, and spent the next 27 minutes taking shot after shot from the Tar Heels—10 of them, to be exact, to go along with six corner kicks. By the end of the night, goalkeeper Ruthie Jones had made a career-high 10 saves. Most of those were fairly routine, save for one where a close-range strike from Tar Heel Aleigh Gambone split a pair of defenders, ricocheted off Jones and Delaney Graham, and required wingback Olivia Migli to clear the ball as it nearly rolled over the goal line.
The Blue Devils finally cleared that North Carolina possession after another couple of minutes, advancing the ball to Rader for a transition run up the field. Dellaperuta put an end to that, bringing Rader down to prevent her from getting any farther ahead, and earned herself a second yellow card—an automatic ejection. Now both teams were playing with only 10 on the field.
“Never underestimate the difficulty in this game to play against a team that sits back,” said Tar Heel head coach Anson Dorrance. “It's very difficult to break down—you have to have incredibly sophisticated players making exquisite decisions consistently with incredible execution to break down a defense. And we basically failed to. And I give Duke nothing but full credit for: A., their game plan, which we knew was coming … but also for their execution of their game plan.”
Duke will now have a few days off before Monday's NCAA Selection Show. The Blue Devils should be out of the running for a second-consecutive No. 1 seed, but can have high hopes for a No. 2 seed.
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