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Nogueira looks for next step

National team may come calling at the season’s end

Casey Nogueira led UNC to a national title in 2008 with two goals in the championship game. DTH/Andrew Dye
Casey Nogueira led UNC to a national title in 2008 with two goals in the championship game. DTH/Andrew Dye

“Write this down: Casey Nogueira has the potential to be the best women’s soccer player in the world.”

When UNC coach Anson Dorrance — the same man who coached women’s soccer greats April Heinrichs, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly — is saying this immediately after he won his 20th national championship behind the strength of her two goals, that player must be gifted.

Six UNC players have won multiple player of the year awards, and Nogueira is looking to become the seventh.

“Casey certainly wanted it last year,” Dorrance said. “Her goal production was consistent, and her finals goal production was magnificent.”

Indeed, her two strikes against Notre Dame not only capped off an impressive 25-goal season but delivered a national championship.

“I think what makes Casey such a great player is her love for the game,” senior back Whitney Engen said. “She loves soccer. She goes out and plays pickup; she’ll juggle a ball on her own. Her passion for the game shows through what she can do on the field.”

International aspirations

Along with having every set of eyes on the other team glued to her this season, Nogueira will have another set of eyes evaluating her every  move.

Coach Pia Sundhage and the rest of Team USA’s staff are hoping that Nogueira can carve out a spot on the 2011 World Cup team.

“Oh yeah, that’s always been a goal to get on the full team,” Nogueira said. “For me, that’s like my childhood dream. I’m still working towards it and not giving up hope.”

Sundhage has told both Dorrance and Nogueira what it would take to start on the full national team in 2011, and it’s quite a departure from the style that Nogueira grew up playing.

“Sundhage wants Casey to be a more mobile player,” Dorrance said. “Attacking mobility is critical, certainly if she’s going to play up front with Abby Wambach, the reigning U.S. star.

“Her counterpart has to be a running, mobile, attack-the-line mentality.”

For a player who had to relearn how to run when she came to UNC, that’s a big adjustment.

“When I was younger, I was just the forward that would take the ball and dribble people and score,” Nogueira said. “But once I got to college it was a big shock because defenders were bigger, faster and better, and I had to play quickly.”

As a freshman, Nogueira struggled to keep up with play, even though the talent was clearly there — she scored two goals in the Final Four of the 2006 national championship.

“She’d take 37 touches with (the ball), and by the time she passed it, not only is everyone on the field marked, everyone on the bench is marked and everyone in the stands is marked,” Dorrance said. “Her speed of play was so slow it was like she was moving backwards in time.”

Practicing joker

That’s not to say that Nogueira is going to let the pressure get to her.

Nogueira is notorious for keeping practices and pregames light. Along with practice antics, she’s also the locker room DJ.

“Casey’s relationship with Anson is one of the highlights of practice. It’s actually funny,” Engen said.

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“She started this thing where she’d try to nutmeg Anson in practice when he’s just walking around. The other day, she just nailed him with the ball, and he turned around and started firing balls back at Casey.”

Nogueira can also be serious, though. The night after the national championship game when her teammates were “burning the town down,” as Dorrance said, Nogueira stayed in and wrote letters to everyone on the team. Engen has hers taped on a wall.

“It basically said … thank you for everything,” Engen said. “ … It’s so genuine, and you know it’s from the bottom of her heart.”

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