One day last month, Emily Fox’s phone rang, and on the other end was Anson Dorrance, who had good news to deliver.
The North Carolina women’s soccer head coach told Fox, one of his top players, that she had been named in the U.S. women’s national team’s squad for a pair of November matches in Europe.
Fox, a sophomore defender who stars at left back for UNC, previously represented the United States at a pair of under-20 World Cups, but she couldn’t believe that she had received her first call-up to the senior team.
“I was honestly very shocked at first,” she said. “I was very excited and nervous.”
As far as expectations go, Fox didn’t have any.
“We were going to play two games in Europe, one against Portugal and Scotland,” Fox said. “I didn’t really know if I was going to play in either of them.”
Maybe she should have had more self-confidence.
Forget play, Fox started in both games, seeing the field for 63 and 76 minutes, respectively, in a pair of 1-0 wins against Portugal and Scotland. Thousands of miles away from Chapel Hill, the Ashburn, Va. native was turning a dream into a reality, playing at the highest level internationally alongside established superstars.
When Fox exited in the 63rd minute to cap off her senior debut, she made way for Carli Lloyd, one of the top American players of this century.
Also in the squad were Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Merritt Mathias, all of whom were once UNC players like Fox.
“It was funny. We would always talk about Anson and how he is very much the same as he was when he was with them,” said Fox, who became the 59th Tar Heel to be capped with the U.S. “But they were all very encouraging and very supporting, and I think them being from North Carolina was definitely an advantage."
A continent away, Fox’s UNC teammates were entering the most important stretch of their season just as she departed to join the U.S.
Everyone understood that she had to go, especially Dorrance. Even with the ACC Tournament in full swing and the NCAA Championship approaching, there was no way Fox could turn down the opportunity.
“In terms of going, Anson was very encouraged and fully supported me going, which I think is very lucky,” Fox said.
So while Fox was forced to follow the Tar Heels’ matches via Twitter from the other side of the Atlantic, UNC pushed on without her. While she was out, the Tar Heels played four games, going 3-1. They reached the ACC Championship game and rolled through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Fox was back in town for the Kansas game, but didn’t see any action as she reacclimated herself following her travels. Her return came in the form of a 22-minute appearance on Nov. 18 against Virginia Tech in the third round of the NCAA tournament, a 3-0 UNC win.
Dorrance and his staff had a plan in place to ease Fox back into action. It’s a good thing she was a full-go for the NCAA quarterfinal match against UCLA.
Before UNC would advance on penalty kicks following a 2-2 draw, Fox made sure her team was even in that position to begin with.
With UCLA’s Hailie Mace in on goal and approaching Tar Heel goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak in the second sudden-death overtime period after a miscue at the back of the UNC defense, Fox raced back, coming out of nowhere to knock Mace off the ball before she could even get a shot off.
That’s the sort of play that will earn the praise of your goalkeeper.
“It’s amazing to have Fox back,” Leshnak said. “She did an amazing job today, and we’re blessed to have her.”
Although UNC doesn’t play many upperclassmen, Dorrance believes his team is wise beyond its years because of the experience it has, which showed against UCLA and was exemplified by Fox.
“I think we’ve got a shockingly mature team for a team that starts so many freshmen and sophomores,” Dorrance said.
On Friday, UNC, now two wins away from a 22nd NCAA tournament title, will face fellow No. 1 seed Georgetown in the national semifinals. Was there ever any doubt in Fox’s mind while she was away that she would return with meaningful games still left to be played?
“I know and feel very confident in our team, and I think this team has a lot of depth.”
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