One of the main defense priorities against the Blue Devils should be to take out “two of the best forwards in the United States,” as Radford head coach Ben Sohrabi described newcomer Duke Kat Rader and sophomore Michelle Cooper.
In their NCAA tournament first-round contest against No. 2-seeded Duke, the Highlanders attempted this, albeit with a more unconventional approach.
Radford put the Blue Devils’ top five players, including the three forwards and two fullbacks, in man marking for the entire 90 minutes of Duke’s 4-0 win on Saturday night. Man marking is a tactic in which defenders are tasked with covering a specific player rather than an area of the field, traditionally used to limit opportunities for one or two key players on the opposing team, such as a strong forward.
“They tagged us man-to-man all over the field and it cost us a little bit – some adjustments, changing some runs, some ways we played entry ball and some angles where we played entry balls ”, head coach Robbie Church said after the game. “…And as the game went on, we kept shuffling them back and forth.”
Radford’s Helena Willson and Jillian Silverstone led Cooper’s bracket coverage, where whoever was closer to the ball acted as a centre-back while the other man tagged Cooper. Kennedy Dunnings stayed on Rader throughout the evening, while Saleena Lynch kept an eye on graduating midfielder Mackenzie Pluck in a duel of the No. 24 shirts. Rookie full-back Elle Piper and graduated midfielder Delaney Graham also found themselves under pressure from the Highlanders.
Man marking by itself isn’t a common setup in football, and it’s even more unusual to include all of the front five in the setup, forcing Duke to figure out how to combat the strategy on the fly.
“Man marking is something we’ve never faced before and it gave us a lot of room to be creative,” Cooper said. “We were able to try new things and learn new exchanges.”
“I mean, you don’t see much man-to-man marking anymore,” Church added. “So we were trying to figure out, ‘Oh my god, what is this?’ … But I thought it was a good tactic for her for a while.”
One of the key adjustments the Blue Devils had to make was creating space for other untagged players to come in and find opportunities. Rather than remain at the forefront of Duke’s offense, Cooper eventually withdrew and positioned himself to the right of veteran midfielder Sophie Jones. This pulled out Radford’s centre-back and left open territory for Duke’s wingers up top to run into that space and find chances off diagonal balls.
The adjustment allowed Piper to complete Duke’s third goal of the night, making her the 10th Blue Devil to score their first collegiate goal during the NCAA tournament. Junior defender Katie Groff shoved a pass to Piper near the touchline, who punched both of her defenders and fired a shot from inside the box. Cooper, sitting back, had taken Silverstone out of the game and with the other Highlanders defenders busy watching Rader and Pluck waiting upstairs, there was no one to challenge Piper after she beat their defenders or one On the shot, the ball eventually bounces under the goalie, giving Duke a 3-0 lead.
“I find [adjusting to the man-marking] was really difficult,” Cooper said. “Trying to make space for other people — that’s what we talked about in the locker room, that it’s not really a movement for yourself, it’s a movement to make space for other people, because it’s really difficult to make someone who all the time behind you. It was just knowing this wasn’t for you to be selfless and just make sure we do it for each other to get it in the back of the web.
The tactic, Sohrabi explained, is one the team will employ during the Big South conference game. With the selection show only taking place on Monday, the team had little time to try and adjust their approach ahead of Saturday night’s competition in Durham.
“I think if we had a month to prepare for that, we would do things differently,” he said after the game. “…You have three or four days to prepare for these guys. We tried a bit and they all came up to me like it was hard for them. What works at our conference is that we go head-to-head with a lot of these teams, and I challenge our kids in a lot of ways to compete at a 1v1 level — and you don’t want to come here and a whole bunch of different things change, because then it’s 8-0 instead of 4-0.”
They most likely won’t see a similar five-man marking strategy in Duke’s upcoming second-round matchup against the No. 7 Texas player on Friday night. But the Blue Devils have proven they can make on-the-fly adjustments to prepare for whatever the Longhorns throw their way.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt Sr. and Social Chair of Volume 118 of The Chronicle. She was previously the editor-in-chief of Volume 117.