Stop me if you’ve heard this before, part I: Virginia surrenders another goal in the game’s first four minutes and has to dig themselves out of the hole.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, part II: Virginia controls the game but is incredibly wasteful in front of goal, squandering an alarming number of chances.
Yep, the standard bugaboos undid the Virginia Cavaliers once again and leaves UVa asking the same questions they have asked of themselves all season.
If there is a coach in the ACC who is more present on the field than Duke’s Robbie Church, I don’t know who it would be. Church seemingly brings a new tactical wrinkle every game which is in direct contrast to Virginia head coach Steve Swanson who pretty much lays the same cards on the table and then dares you to beat it. Each method has its pluses and minuses. In this contest, Duke’s won out.
For this match, Duke would defend deep and narrow, almost ceding the wide spaces, which is where Virginia wants to play. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But Duke wanted to deny the cross and the through ball up the middle. And, for the most part, it worked to perfection as the Blue Devils put on a master class of how to play team defense. It was as fine a defensive performance as I’ve seen in a while.
Of course, when you play deep, you’re looking for the counter, and once again Virginia was victimized early. Three minutes in, the ball had ping-ponged a bit at midfield and Duke’s Maggie Graham got the ball and proceeded to make what initially looked like a speculative pass forward found Kat Rader in space. Rader turned on the ball and fed it ahead to Michelle Cooper. Cooper is faster than Claire Constant and she let the ball run ahead of her, looked up, took her time and, with her first touch, slotted the ball into the back corner.
The space that Rader found herself in was the space that a Virginia team is going to concede. Left back Samar Guidry was in the Duke half of the field as Graham was splitting the defense. Most other teams would have their outside backs play deeper, but that’s not the Virginia way. That was the negative.
The positive to the Virginia way is that free-ranging outside backs cause matchup nightmares for other team’s back lines, and it allows Virginia to flood the midfield and control the game. It worked versus Florida State, where the ‘Hoos pretty much ran the defending champions off the pitch. It worked in the second half against North Carolina as the Cavaliers came down from 2 – 0 to win it 3 – 2, again, running the opposition off the field. And it largely worked here. Virginia controlled the game and if we were to look at a heat map for the match, all the red would be in the Duke half of the field.
Following the goal, Virginia quickly took control of the match and tried to find space in front of the Duke goal. It was hard to find, and when they did, they struggled to capitalize. Laney Rouse seems to have shaken off her knock, for she was back in the starting lineup, and midway through the half, she delivered a lovely cross that found Lia Godfrey all alone at the edge of the 6-yard box. Taking the ball on the full volley, Godfrey skied the ball over the net. Four minutes later, Haley Hopkins had a great drive to the corner of the box where she found Maggie Cagle who also shot high.
Virginia was finding the wide spaces, as a couple of fine crosses from Guidry and Rouse can attest. But there were always three or four Blue Devils in front of the goal. With 10 minutes left in the half, Godfrey was finally able to slip the ball behind the line and Alexa Spaanstra pounced, slipping the ball to the far post past Duke keeper Ruthie Jones.
The game was tied up at 1 – 1 heading into the half. The two teams had combined for a whopping 7 shots in the half, and the only two that had been on-frame were the two goals.
The second half was more of the same. Virginia controlled play and, just two minutes in, Spaanstra found Cagle at almost the exact same spot as where Godfrey had skied her shot. Well, Spaanstra gave Cagle a better ball, and Cagle skied it. Rather than following through, Cagle stabbed at the ball, which, like a bunker shot in golf, was always going to go high.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda… Virginia had plenty of chances to take the lead, and I could make a pretty good highlight vid of the near misses. Alexis Theoret had a free kick two yards outside of the box that she missed by maybe a foot. Another great Rouse cross split two defenders and found Hopkins. Who headed wide by maybe a foot. Guidry had two fine efforts 30 seconds apart, once hitting the cross bar and then once forcing Jones into making her one real save in the game.
Virginia, as we all know by now, is the highest scoring team of this past decade, and the wealth of attacking talent that Swanson has deployed has been the equal of any team in the country. Virginia has won the lion’s share of their matches over the past six years that I have been watching, but those we have lost are usually not because we’ve been outplayed but because we just can’t buy a bucket. English soccer fans would say that Virginia is profligate, as in wasteful, in front of goal.
Duke, on the other hand, had really only three good shots all game, and the third was the game winner. 10 minutes into the second half, seemingly out of nothing, Kat Rader got the ball at the top right of the box. There were three Blue Devils in the frame, as opposed to six Cavalier defenders, and she waited, and hesitated, and was seemingly well covered by Samar Guidry, and yet she found the back of the net. It was a lovely goal and Virginia is sent packing and will have a long week til Selection Sunday.
A Tip of the Cap: Olivia Miglie drew the assignment of stopping Cagle. And she did. It was an extremely interesting matchup to watch and I felt she was the unsung hero on the day.
Up Next: Duke advances to play North Carolina on Thursday, a match I will not watch. Is there any Duke player who ever thinks they’ve committed a foul or who thinks any not-blatantly-obvious ball out-of-bounds shouldn’t go Duke’s way? Pit them against the Tar Heels and everyone’s pointing and a’ wagging their fingers. It’s really tedious.