The timing was ideal. On an unexpectedly pleasant day in early August, the North Carolina women’s soccer team held its first practice of the 2016 season.
Hours later the top-ranked U.S. women’s squad took the field in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, at the Olympic Games.
The match almost 4,500 miles away had a pronounced Tar Heel flavor.
Seven former UNC players – five on the active roster, three in the starting lineup – were among the 22 American Olympians. Yet another ex-Heel competed for the opponent, New Zealand, ranked 17th in the world.
Presented with this serendipitous convergence, UNC coach Anson Dorrance neatly seized the moment, hosting his current Carolina contingent for supper at a downtown Chapel Hill restaurant that showed a telecast of the U.S. team’s opener. The early evening get-together fostered camaraderie at the dawn of a new season, and allowed Dorrance, a Hall of Fame coach with 22 national college championships and an 89.3 winning percentage across 37 seasons, to exclaim, expound, and expostulate as the spirit moved him.
With a parent’s pride Dorrance, dressed in jeans, short-sleeved shirt and ball cap, quickly displayed a photo on his phone of the seven North Carolina grads dressed in matching dark-blue U.S. warm-ups – defenders Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, midfielders Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath and Allie Long, and alternates Ashlyn Harris and Heather O’Reilly. The accompanying legend said, “GO USA…GO TAR HEELS!!!” No other school supplied more than three members on the Rio squad.
The 2-0 American victory against New Zealand Wednesday was relatively stress free, yet close enough so Dorrance savored the prospect of sending a teasing text message to UNC alum Katie Bowen of the “Football Ferns” without fear of hurting her feelings.
“We’re very, very excited and proud of her, obviously,” the coach said of Bowen. “What we want to try to do for kids that select to come and play for us, if they will work their rear ends off and go after it, we’re going to do what we can to help them get to this level. So she’s living her dream right now.”
Amid the loud murmur of voices in the private dining area, the shared nachos and tater tots, the reaching arms, the laughter, the single waitress incessantly lugging laden plates and brimming glasses, Dorrance oohed and aahed like any fan, asking those around him what he missed when his attention wandered from the big screen. Sometimes he simply shouted for a yellow card after a tough takedown of an American, or drew attention to stellar play by a UNC product.
Dorrance was especially pleased with a pass from 28-year- old Tobin Heath to set up the first American goal in the game’s ninth minute.
“Obviously Tobin from that will certainly get lit up from all of us for that fabulous assist,” he declared, anticipating a texting barrage. “Also, right now, she’s the game-changer on the field. The game’s going through her.”
As the Americans established their mastery, improving to 15-0-1 with 14 shutouts in 2016, Dorrance found openings to discuss his take on soccer in general, and on playing the game himself. The former UNC player (Class of 1974) recently returned from a successful foray to Denver as a participant on an over-65 team, Greensboro United.
The subject arose when Dorrance ordered a small kale salad with shrimp, intent on remaining at what he called “lizard weight.”(“Have you ever seen a fat lizard?” he asked. “I’ve never seen fat on a lizard.”)
Soon he was using incidents in the game for illustrative purposes.
“Girls, you’ve got to understand how to ride tackles,” Dorrance said, raising his voice above the hubbub after a hard tackle of Heath. The background chatter didn’t appreciably decrease, but nearby players turned to listen. “If someone comes in like that, you’ve got to get light. Did you see her left leg? It was light when it was hit. The way you’re going to get hurt is if you plant and then you’re hit. So basically get airborne, get light, and you’re going to stay alive.”
A neighbor at the table prompted Dorrance to discuss his tenure from 1986 through 1994 as head coach of the U.S. National women’s team. After taking the program from winless in international play to a 1991 World Cup championship, he stepped aside to concentrate on his Carolina women’s teams.
“I’m a teacher-coach, so for me” – he pauses to yell “Finish it!” at the screen and then resumes mid-sentence – “for me, I get the best of every possible world here,” said the former English and philosophy major. “I get to work on the things I want to work on, which is character development and academics. And then the piece that’s fun obviously is watching them get better as soccer players.”
Returning his attention to the ’16 Olympic squad, Dorrance quietly gloried in the way his influence endured, part of a process of “organic” growth from coach to coach. “What I love about watching the U.S. team is, everything I taught them is still there,” he said. “They fight like hell. They never quit.”
Dorrance explained the supremacy of American women’s soccer – three FIFA World Cup championships, most recently in 2015; four gold medals and one silver in five Olympics in which the sport was included – as reflective of the freedoms accorded females to develop skills in our society.
He also said the women’s game gets top selections from the country’s “genetic pool,” while the best American male athletes choose other sports first. “On the women’s side, we get the pick of the litter,” Dorrance said. “Occasionally the men get a first choice, only we don’t get 11. You go to Germany, they get all top-tier.”
Dorrance initially coached the UNC men and, for a time, the school’s teams for both sexes. A follower of European soccer, he has a healthy respect for the advanced athleticism enjoyed by men compared with women of the same age.
That’s why his Heels practice with eight men, all walk-ons in good academic standing. “They run past us, they jump over us,” Dorrance said.
He considered male participation in his squad’s practices – a tactic similarly employed in women’s basketball – as a bit of a secret weapon, one he doesn’t discuss with rivals. “Obviously I don’t want them to put men on their team,” Dorrance said. “Basically they’re crazy not to have men on their team. They’re crazy.”
Speaking of differences between the sexes, Dorrance has little patience for those in women’s athletics who complain about their media coverage compared to men.
“I know a lot of, especially women’s basketball coaches, complain about lack of attention, as if there’s some sort of moral imperative to follow them. Just because your frigging AD is spoiling you doesn’t mean everyone else has to,” Dorrance said with vehemence.
“Wake up and smell the roses. This is the real frigging world. Get it done. If you want a huge crowd, attract them.” (Last season UNC led ACC’s women soccer in average home attendance at 1,851). “That’s the way I feel – if no one comes to our games, it’s my fault. We don’t deserve it. You get what you deserve.”
A moment later, Long, a late-blooming former Heel who turns 29 later this week, initiated a sequence that resulted in a second U.S. goal. “Yes!” Dorrance shouted, back to enjoying the game that’s shaped and graced his life.