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Explosive offense, depth keeps UNC women's soccer undefeated in ACC play

Alessia Russo1-1.jpg

Sophomore forward Alessia Russo (19) takes a free kick during the team's 5-1 win over Louisville at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sept. 29.

CARY — Alessia Russo stepped up to the ball that sat 26 yards away from the goal, waiting for the referee’s signal. The sophomore forward stared down the four-woman wall of Louisville players that stood in front of her and took a few steps back. 

A shrill whistle echoed throughout Koka Booth Stadium.

Russo took three steps before banging the ball over the wall and past the Cardinals’ goalkeeper, tying the game at 1-1. As she lined up for the shot, her thought process was simple. 

“To be honest, I just hit it as hard as I could,” Russo said. 

No. 3 North Carolina women’s soccer (9-2-1, 4-0 ACC) stands as the only undefeated team in ACC play after a 5-1 victory over Louisville (9-2, 3-1 ACC). Saturday's midday game was the highest scoring game for the Tar Heels since Sept. 30, 2017, when UNC had a 7-0 victory over Syracuse at WakeMed Soccer Park. 

“What excited me the most today was the way the starting unit played because we scored some goals early,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “And that’s been an Achilles heel for us because we’ve done a good job defending.”

The Cardinals had an early edge over UNC, scoring the first goal five minutes into the game, only four minutes after Russo’s first shot attempt hit the crossbar. Once Louisville’s Emina Ekic broke away from the defense, she made a mad sprint through the box and scored. The Cardinals had a total of eight shots on Saturday, three of which were on goal, but they never found the back of the net again. 

However, UNC’s story was different. Once Louisville scored first, a sense of controlled urgency took over the Tar Heels as their intensity grew. The tempo picked up, and it was as if a switch was flipped. 

“Despite the fact of going down a goal, I’m looking at the team and watching the way they’re playing, and thinking, ‘we’re doing OK,’” Dorrance said. “I was pretty confident that we’d have a chance to come back.” 

The chances came quickly, one after another. The Tar Heels never let up on their shots, placing nine out of the 13 on goal. Three minutes after her first goal, Russo found the back of the net again when a header from midfielder Dorian Bailey freed Russo on a breakaway. Ten minutes later, Bailey had a goal of her own. 

Even with a 3-1 lead, Russo was unrelenting, eager to further the lead even more. However, after an aggressive hit to Russo’s shin by Louisville in the box, the sophomore came off the field for the remainder of the half. Redshirt sophomore Taylor Otto stepped up to take the Tar Heels’ second penalty kick of the season. Hitting the right side of the net, Otto earned herself a third goal of the season and pushed UNC’s lead to 4-1. 

“(Otto) was absolutely magnificent,” Dorrance said. “She came off at the half, and that was as complete of a game as I’ve seen out of a central midfielder from us in a while.”

This was just the first half for the Tar Heels, and an explosive one at that. 

“We did a really good job of getting our rhythm and playing our game,” Otto said. “We obviously went down early, and our character showed really, really strong through that; we came back harder.” 

Scoring-wise, Otto sealed the 5-1 Tar Heel victory with another penalty kick in the 49th minute. While the second half lacked the goals of the first, the second period showed another weapon of UNC besides its dynamic offense — the team’s depth and talent. 

Twenty-six Tar Heels touched the field during Saturday's game out of the 30-person roster. Two players, graduate student Annie Kingman and redshirt senior Maggie Bill, returned from injuries while redshirt sophomore Kasey Parker had five minutes of playing time. This was her first time playing since a series of injuries sidelined her midway through the 2016 season. 

First-year Claudia Dickey and senior Samantha Leshnak played 45 minutes each in goal while Louisville’s goalkeeper played all 90 minutes.

“For second half, we were just managing the roster, giving the starters a chance to play for fifteen minutes like we did, and then give the opportunity to play to some girls that work themselves to death in practice for us,” Dorrance said. “But also, we got to figure out what our depth is. To play most of the players in at least a 50-minute block was very positive.”

The high-powered offense and team depth helped the Tar Heels earn their first ever win over Louisville. UNC tied the series 1-1-1 since the first game in 2015, and is now the only undefeated team left in ACC play. 

“Any person that’s going to come on off of the bench is going to compete and prove their worth,” Russo said. “I trust anyone to come on and do their job.” 

“We all work hard together.”

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