For the past two decades, the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s colors have often appeared to be red, white and Carolina blue.
It has been commonplace for the U.S. team to fill about 30-40 percent of its roster with former Tar Heel players, and sometimes it’s been more than that. In the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, North Carolina women’s coach Anson Dorrance took a squad of 18 players. Half were Tar Heels, and they won the whole thing.
But this 2012 Olympic squad looks different. Only two former North Carolina players are on the 18-woman roster, the fewest Tar Heels since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996.
“There’s a heck of a lot of talent out there now,” said Dorrance, who has coached 20 women’s teams at North Carolina to NCAA titles, most recently in 2009. “And we’re not getting it all.”
The two former Tar Heels are both starters – midfielders Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath.
“We would have four players, though, if not for injury,” Dorrance said. “One would be starting at left back – Lori Chalupny. She has concussion issues. She’s still playing professionally, but I think U.S. soccer doesn’t want to put her in uniform because of the risk of another. The other is Lindsay Tarpley, who would have been on the roster but tore her ACL again.”
Both Chalupny and Tarpley played (along with O’Reilly and Heath) on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal. And the Tar Heels do have other players on the edge of making the national team who could break through for the 2016 Games.
But it’s also true that the stars of the national team no longer usually pass through Dorrance’s program first, as they so often used to in the days of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Cindy Parlow.
Hamm still holds the world record of 158 goals scored in international competition. Lilly was a dominant force for three consecutive Olympics from 1996-2004. But none of the three most well-known players on this U.S. team – goalkeeper Hope Solo and primary scorers Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan – went to Chapel Hill.
O’Reilly, a three-time Olympian who at 27 remains one of the fastest players in the world, believes this year’s lack of Tar Heel players is something of a fluke.
“Just like the international game, the talent pool is spreading out,” O’Reilly said. “But UNC has consistently been one of the best. There are obviously ebbs and flows in terms of talent. But I think there are a lot of young Tar Heels coming up that will be going to UNC soon and are very, very good players. So I don’t think the program is going anywhere.”
This U.S. team is ranked No. 1 in the world. But it lost in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in a nail-biting final to Japan. That game – along with close wins in the previous two rounds – raised the profile of the U.S. team considerably despite the defeat.
“You need to imagine the feeling,” O’Reilly said. “We lost a very emotional final. We got on a flight. We landed in New York City the next morning, probably still teary-eyed and tired and emotionally drained.
“And we pulled into New York City and mobs of fans were in Times Square, screaming for us, telling us they’re proud of us, telling us that they never watched soccer before and now they’re hooked.
“It was very strange for us because we didn’t feel in our hearts the way we were received. I think that opened our eyes and made us proud of what we did accomplish over there. We didn’t win – but there were a lot of other wins that came along with it.”
The U.S. women’s team has had a history of following close losses in the Women’s World Cup the next year with Olympic gold – that has happened in each of the previous two Olympic cycles. The U.S. will be favored in the Olympics, but teams like Japan, Brazil and France will provide difficult competition in the 12-team women’s tournament.
The U.S. women likely will become a significant story once again in London. The U.S. men weren’t able to qualify a team, so the American soccer spotlight will shine squarely upon the women once again.
“I’ve been on the national team for 10 years,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve really grown up on it. And I know that anything less than a gold medal will be a disappointment for us.”
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler