5 things to know about Alabama soccer’s NCAA quarterfinal game vs. Duke

Alabama soccer’s historic run rolls on tonight as the No. 1 seed Crimson Tide hosts No. 2 seed Duke in an NCAA quarterfinal.

In the midst of its best season in school history, Alabama (22-2-1) now sits one win away from making its first College Cup appearance and three victories shy of taking home the national title. First up, the Crimson Tide will need to get past Duke (15-4-3), which is fresh off of knocking off SEC Tournament champion South Carolina last week.

Tonight’s kickoff is set for 6 p.m. CT inside Alabama Soccer Stadium. The matchup will be Alabama’s final home game of the season as a win would advance the Crimson Tide to a College Cup semifinal matchup in Cary, N.C. on Dec. 2 against either No. 1 seed UCLA or No. 3 seed Virginia

Here are five things to watch for in Friday’s quarterfinal.

A battle of top goal scorers 

Friday’s matchup will feature two of the nation’s top goal scorers in Alabama’s Riley Mattingly Parker and Duke’s Michelle Cooper, who are tied for fifth nationally with 17 goals this season.

Mattingly Parker broke Alabama’s single-season goal record of 15 set by Libby Probst in 2005. The graduate student has also chipped in seven assists in her 24 appearances to take home SEC Forward of the Year honors. Mattingly Parker’s success this season comes after she sat out all of last year while recovering from a torn ACL.

“The great thing about Riley is she keeps plugging away and getting better and better,” Alabama head coach Wes Hart said earlier this year. “I truly believe she’s come back a better player then when she got hurt. I think she’s physically stronger. She looks quicker. She looks more agile. She looks more powerful.”

Cooper, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, has been equally strong for Duke, adding 11 assists to her 17 goals this season. The sophomore scored both of the Blue Devils’ goals in last week’s 2-1 victory over South Carolina to help Duke advance to Friday’s quarterfinal.

“We just know that Michelle Cooper’s going to be a handful,” Alabama right back Gessica Skorka said Tuesday. “Obviously 17 goals is insane. We also have that with Riley Mattingly. I trust our defense, and I know that Sasha [Pickard], Brooke [Steere], Reyna [Reyes], Macy [Clem], myself, [McKinley Crone], we’re going to give her a run for her money.”

Alabama’s midfield maestro 

Mattingly Parker might garner more attention, but Felicia Knox is the one who typically orchestrates Alabama’s attack. The SEC Midfielder of the Year leads the nation with 20 assists and has also chipped in seven goals of her own through 25 appearances this season.

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Knox netted a goal while dishing out a season-high three assists during Alabama’s 9-0 victory over Jackson State to open the NCAA Tournament. She also had a goal and an assist in the Crimson Tide’s 3-1 victory over UC Irvine to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal.

“I like to assist,” Knox told reporters after last week’s win over UC Irvine. “I like to give the ball to the goal scorers. I think it’s more fun to help somebody else score. But ultimately, if they’re not in the right place, if my teammates are not giving me the ball, if they’re not scoring goals, then I don’t get these accolades. It’s a team effort. It all comes back to the team goal.”

A beast in the back 

Alabama is known for its offense as it ranks second nationally averaging 2.92 goals per game. However, the Tide’s high-line attack wouldn’t be possible without its beast in the back.

Sasha Pickard’s name doesn’t show up too much in the box score, but the senior center back has been the heartbeat of Alabama’s defense this season, sweeping out opposing attacks when the Crimson Tide gets caught out on the break. Pickard leads the team with 2,175 minutes played this season and will be one of Alabama’s most important players moving forward as it takes on top teams who won’t be afraid to push up the field on offense.

“Sasha is massive,” Hart said earlier this season. “She’s probably got to be one of the most underrated, undervalued center backs in the country, certainly in our league. She doesn’t get a lot of attention from the press or other coaches, but when she’s on your team… the amount of shot she blocks, the amount of balls she wins, the amount of pressure she puts on opposing attackers, she is so incredibly important to our back line.

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“She does a great job of controlling our line, getting us organized, keeping us pushed up and condensed. But her mentality, her work ethic, her competitive spirit is second to none. She’s an animal.”

Room to run 

So far this tournament, Alabama’s opponents have been cautious of its high-powered attack, often sitting back on defense while looking to catch the Crimson Tide on the counter. That shouldn’t be the case against Duke as the Blue Devils will likely look to provide more of a challenge up the field.

While that will put more pressure on Alabama’s defense, it could open up space for the Crimson Tide to take advantage of its speed on the wings. One way Alabama can do that is by deploying freshman winger Gianna Paul, who has made a habit of toasting defenders down the flanks.

Paul earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors, recording seven goals and five assists this season. She knocked in two of those goals in the tournament opener against Jackson State.

Alabama’s home-field advantage 

Alabama has won its last 21 home matches dating back to last season. That includes a perfect 12-0 mark in Tuscaloosa this season in which it has outscored its opponents a combined 41-4.

“It’s just comfortable to sleep in your own beds, to know the field. We train on this field every single day,” Hart said Tuesday. “And then going back to the fans, having the support of your fans and being able to feed off that energy.

“We earned the right to host, and I’m certainly glad we did because I think it’s going to come in huge for this game.”

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