As Duke head coach Robbie Church mused Thursday night, “soccer is not a 45-minute game.”
The 16th-ranked Blue Devils started out the stronger side, but ultimately faded in the second half, losing a 2-1 crusher at the hands of No. 10 Notre Dame at Koskinen Stadium. The Fighting Irish scored both of their late goals in the span of 93 seconds, eliminating Duke’s hard work to maintain its early advantage even as starting center backs Baleigh Bruster and Emily Royson left the game with injuries.
“We lost two of our three starting backs and we were scrambling at that point,” Church said. “We didn’t keep possession at all like we did in the first half.”
The first major blow for the Blue Devils (5-3, 1-1 in the ACC) occurred in the fifth minute, when in the midst of a scramble for the ball in the box, Notre Dame’s Clare Logan clattered into Royson's left ankle. In clear discomfort, she was unable to put any pressure on her left leg at all and was seen after the match in a full boot and crutches.
The second injury occurred midway through the second half when Bruster challenged for a ball on the near sideline. Landing awkwardly, she remained down holding her shoulder, was helped off by medical staff and did not return to the contest. The extent of either injury is unknown.
Notre Dame (6-1-2, 2-0 in the ACC) took full advantage of the more inexperienced Blue Devil back line, keeping possession in the Duke half for long stretches of play. After knocking at the door for 38 minutes in the second half, the Fighting Irish were rewarded with a stroke of luck as a cross from Ellie Ospek ricocheted off a Duke defender, then off the post and landed perfectly at the feet of Kiki Van Zanten. Van Zanten, a member of the Jamaican national team, calmly passed the ball into the net to equalize.
Not even a full two minutes later, a missed clearance by Duke defender Katie Groff allowed Notre Dame’s Morgan Roy to deliver another tantalizing ball into the box. This time, Elle Piper was in proper position, but unfortunately her clear attempt to rid the danger smacked into the foot of stalking Fighting Irish forward Leah Klenke and into the back of the net. A loud roar erupted from the Irish sideline and the players on the field dogpiled Klenke at the penalty spot with the road victory almost certainly secured.
“We have to slow the game down … make them run,” Church said. “We’ve got to be able to close out games.”
Although the one-two punch of the brutal injuries and the gutting second half performance soured moods, Duke played a very good first half of soccer. They pressed Notre Dame from the jump, dominated possession and scored first on an impressive goal. Sophomore forward Kat Rader received a pass with a defender on her back and layed it off to reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Week Carina Lageyre, who sent a perfect through-ball back into the box. Rader used her speed to get by the defenders, took a touch with her right foot and then fired with her left into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. The goal was Rader’s fifth on the season.
“[Lageyre] has been on a different level,” Church said of his emerging sophomore. “ACC Player of the Week just really gave her confidence. I think she’s playing at a really high level.”
Another standout performance came from goalie Leah Freeman. The 2022 Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year has blossomed into a standout for the Blue Devils, making a season-high five saves against the Fighting Irish. One especially remarkable stop was a lunging effort to deny Notre Dame’s Maddie Mercado. Freeman leapt with full extension across the goal to paw away a swerving free kick from the top of the box that seemed destined to find the upper right-hand corner of the goal.
“Yes,” Church said when asked if Freeman had fully adjusted to life at Duke. “She’s a top-notch keeper. Unfortunately [we] left her a little bit alone at the end … but she’s playing really well.”
The Blue Devils will have to pick their heads up, improve defensive communication and regroup quickly, as they play host to in-state ACC foe N.C. State Sunday night.
“You have to have a really short memory in college soccer,” Church said. “We’ve got to be able to push this back and take the positives.”
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