Duke-Stanford showcases 'the beautiful game'

KENNESAW, Ga. -- Set against the general din of the holiday season, and the particular cacophony of an NFL weekend, Sunday's national championship game between Duke and Stanford (ESPNU/ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET) won't change the face of women's soccer in the United States in a single afternoon.

As a first-time champion is crowned, the 30th NCAA championship game will show how the sport has changed.

Duke would become just the second ACC program to win the title, reinforcing the notion that the conference widely considered the toughest in the nation has grown well beyond an existence as North Carolina's warm-up act.

Stanford would become just the third undefeated champion in the past 15 tournaments and avoid becoming the first team to lose three consecutive championship games. A Cardinal victory would also give the Pac-12 its second title-winning program, a distinction only the West Coast Conference currently holds, and would solidify the Pacific time zone's share of power.

But what these teams share, rather than a clash of conferences and coasts, gives Sunday its identity. Most championship games give us a team to celebrate. These teams give us a chance to celebrate the game.

"I think this was a great showcase because all four teams really like to play the game as a possession-oriented game," Duke coach Robbie Church said after his team advanced to the championship game. "They like to keep it on the ground, they like to change the point of attack and like to run at players. Not saying one style is better than the other style, but it's the style we choose. We think it's an attractive soccer style; we try to bring a lot of people into our attack. I hope it will help [the sport]. I hope we get enough of the youth players that are here, and I hope a lot of people do see it on television and really help develop that style of play on a big stage here.

"We're very proud to be playing Stanford. We have a lot of respect for them; we like how they play."

It's impossible to enjoy soccer and not appreciate how Stanford plays. No college team is better at the beautiful game. Teresa Noyola is a world-class playmaker in the midfield, as befits someone who played for Mexico in the most recent Women's World Cup. Outside backs Rachel Quon and Camille Levin are as good with the ball going forward as they are in their own half, while center backs Alina Garciamendez, another World Cup veteran, and Kendall Romine are adept at distributing and comfortable with the ball. Mariah Nogueira is a presence in the air, and Kristy Zurmuhlen will throw herself into traffic and grind like a third-line hockey winger, but neither is short on technical ability. And all of those roles are played as prelude to forwards such as Lindsay Taylor and Chioma Ubogagu providing the finishing touch.

The comparisons to Barcelona are inevitable. And as Noyola, a fan of the reigning European champions, described what she most appreciated about its style, she might as well have been talking about her own team.

"They've stuck behind their style and believed that it's going to win, even though it hasn't been so winning in the past," Noyola said of the Spanish giant that suffered its share of European disappointment before winning the Champions League three times since 2006. "They really play to their strengths, they play to the strengths of their players, and they've really stuck by that."

Maybe it isn't enough to get opposing coaches to curl up into a ball at the thought of trying to defend the Cardinal, but it's more than enough to get many foes to pull their teams back into a shell. Shots on goal aren't always the best measure of a game's flow, but some of the margins Stanford piled up against even Pac-12 competition -- 39-9 against Arizona, 32-7 against USC, 24-3 against Utah -- tell a story of opponents bunkering down.

Stanford wants to play the game. Most of its opponents spend 90 minutes trying to make sure it doesn't get a chance.

That is not Duke's style. It has never been Church's style, not when he was a defender who thought constantly of getting into the attack, not during a college career at Pfeiffer College in which he led the team in scoring as a senior, and not as a coach over the past three decades. Asked about his philosophy Saturday, Church found his way to mentioning, you guessed it, Barcelona. The Blue Devils aren't about to change their identity Sunday.

"We have to keep the ball," Church said. "When we get the ball, we cannot turn it back over to them. We can't be chasing for 90 minutes. So possession will be important. Stanford is one of the top possession teams in the country, there's no question about that. They've got beautiful shape, the speed of play is very, very good."

Much of the focus for Duke is on its three forwards: Kelly Cobb, Mollie Pathman and Laura Weinberg. All are part of Duke's two most recent recruiting classes, those Church credited with giving his roster the athleticism needed to make the most of a style of play. But keeping the ball against Stanford requires more than goal scorers. Duke's possession builds through Natasha Anasi on the back line and Nicole Lipp in the midfield. Outside backs Erin Koballa and Maddy Haller stretch the field wide when they push forward, something Florida State did to good effect in pushing Stanford early in that semifinal and something Duke did well against Wake Forest.

"Getting our outside backs forward, kind of getting everyone incorporated in our attack," Pathman said. "I think that's what makes us so dangerous is we're not a one-man show in our attack, it's everyone."

There is a conclusion to this season's story yet to be written. Stanford's seniors will complete their careers in Hollywood style, winning a championship after enduring College Cup disappointment three times over. Or a Duke team without a senior starter will complete a program's transformation and usher in a new era. Which one comes to pass will depend on which team plays a better brand of soccer.

"It comes down to the players," Church said. "When you get the players that can play, when you get the players that can possess, when you get the players who can play out of pressure -- you do what the players do best."

One team will celebrate when the final whistle blows. The rest of us can start before the first one for a game three decades in the making.

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