At the beginning of June, when most DI soccer players are spread out across the country, members of the Duke women's soccer team started to trickle back towards Durham.
On the heels of its run to the 2015 NCAA title game, Duke had received a unique opportunity: travel to China as part of a U.S. delegation for the seventh annual U.S-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, and compete in two games against a team from Beijing National University.
“It just kind of came out of the blue,” Blue Devil head coach Robbie Church told TopDrawerSoccer. “I saw it, and I was like ‘what is this?’ We almost didn’t do it because a lot of our kids have internships all year, study abroad programs. So we almost didn’t do it because we were going in so many different directions this summer.”
Eventually, Church and the rest of the program decided it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. While a number of top players missed the trip because of international duty, including starters Christina Gibbons, Toni Payne and Rebecca Quinn, 15 players hopped on a plane on June 2 for the trip of a lifetime.
About as soon as they landed, the team hit the ground running. With soccer only a small sliver of the agenda, the opportunities to see and experience a number of Beijing’s key landmarks were ample.
After being whisked away for a first stop at the Great Wall of China – a landmark Church labeled as “unbelievable” to see – Duke drew in its first of two games against Beijing Normal on just its second full day in China.
“[We] struggled a little bit like we thought we would because it’d been a long time since we’d practiced,” Church said. “Jet lag was a little bit in there, but we were down 1-0 at half and pretty fortunate not to be down two, maybe three at the half. Second half we played much better, better movement off the ball, defended better, got one back, almost should’ve gotten a second or third ourselves in the second half. So we finished 1-1, which was a fair result.”
With soccer not the first priority on the trip, the rest of Duke’s schedule off the field whisked them around to various landmarks in the region: Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Tomb, the Silk Market and the Forbidden City to name the few. The players on the trip had plenty of opportunities to interact with its opponents from Beijing Normal, learning various aspects of the culture, including dance, clothing and games.
The second game on the itinerary would have a different feel to it. Six players were added to Beijing Normal’s roster, all who happened to be making the trip to the Rio Olympics later this summer.
It certainly raised the level of the friendly.
“They came back with six national team players, beat us 6-3,” Church said. “Scored four unbelievable goals. At least three of the goals [assistant coach] Erwin [van Bennekom] and I looked at each other sand said ‘wow, that was just special.’ We actually played fairly well, scored three nice goals with it. For them, playing out of tight spaces, ability to change balls, they could drive balls 60 yards across the field; their first touch was phenomenal.”
The result was obviously secondary. While the exposure to the level of the second match will certainly help, the opportunities to learn and interact with players of another culture played a big role in the trip.
It was a whirlwind trip in all, with just five full days in China, full of soccer and sightseeing. Church was pleased with the way the players that were on the trip came together, certainly a big plus for a team that returns 10 of 11 starters from last fall.
“The bonding that went on with the kids, they were just phenomenal off the field and on the field with everything that we did,” he said.