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Saturday November 27th

How Brianna Pinto modeled her father and became a soccer star

Hassan Pinto, kicks a ball in the air with his foot at the new UNC Soccer Stadium as his daughter, Brianna Pinto watches on Wednesday, Aug. 21 2019.
Buy Photos Hassan Pinto, kicks a ball in the air with his foot at the new UNC Soccer Stadium as his daughter, Brianna Pinto watches on Wednesday, Aug. 21 2019.

Hassan Pinto draws stares as he exits his black Toyota Camry and walks down the brick walkway that separates Hooker Fields and Carmichael Arena. 

The attendants outside the arena heckle him about his attire. Hassan, a standout forward for the UNC men’s soccer team in the early 1990s, is decked out in a Duke T-shirt, a gray Blue Devils ball cap and khaki shorts.

His daughter, Brianna Pinto, a sophomore midfielder for the Tar Heels’ women’s soccer team, waits for him at the edge of the soccer fields. 

It’s Hassan’s first stop of the afternoon. 

He visits Brianna on UNC’s campus before making his way to Durham to watch his son, Hassan Jr., suit up for the Blue Devils’ men’s soccer team for the first time in his final year of eligibility as a redshirt senior defender. 

“It’s my first time wearing Duke anything,” Hassan Sr. laughs. “But, you know, we have a hashtag in our family: ‘That Pinto life.’ … Family is first, before rivalries, before anything. So, we’re Duke fans now.”

There’s a pause. 

Brianna rolls her eyes. She can’t help but interject: “Speaking of which, we’re playing them next Sunday, so Duke better be ready.”

For Hassan, wearing the colors of that team down the road is a small sacrifice compared to the ones he made when his kids were younger. And it paid off for all of them — Brianna, Hassan Jr., and 17-year-old Malik, who is “committed to the admissions process” at Princeton.

But especially for Brianna, who enters this season as one of three Tar Heels on the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List. 

There’s also unfinished business. 

UNC made it to the NCAA title game for the first time since 2012 last season but fell short of winning the program’s 22nd National Championship, losing to Florida State, 1-0.

“The hardest part about it was just living up to the dynasty that has been created before us,” Brianna said. “Obviously, every single one of us wants to leave with a national championship. And that's something that's expected of us ... I think that’s the biggest struggle for me, because now I only have three years to get it done.

“So, it's another added pressure of being part of such a decorated college environment.”

Brianna thrives under pressure, though. She always has. 

‘She had all my moves … and I didn’t even know it.’

In 2003, Hassan came to a realization. 

Working long hours in marketing with Major League Baseball, he had no time to spend with his children. So, he found a job with a mobile software company where he’d work a less demanding schedule and moved the family from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Durham. 

Soon, he reconnected with UNC women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance, who helped recruit him in 1989 when Dorrance coached both the Tar Heel men’s and women’s teams.

Dorrance and Hassan played soccer together every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon on Hooker Fields. The pickup games usually featured then-UNC men’s soccer assistant coach Carlos Somoano and UNC soccer legend Heather O’Reilly, among other stars. They coined it ‘Noon Ball.’  

“That’s when I really developed a real, real keen understanding for his personality and started to understand why I was recruited here,” Hassan said of Dorrance. “I started to see the type of players he liked, even on the girls' side. And we just became very good friends.”

During the summers, Hassan would bring his children to Noon Ball; they’d watch from the sidelines. 

Brianna hadn’t even started playing competitively yet. 

“It was just so cool to see (Dorrance) be able to join in a group with a lot of young men and women,” Brianna said. “It was a high intensity game, because everybody who played in the Noon Ball matches played at a high level, so they understand what it means to compete.”

Soon enough, seeing her older brother and dad play the sport made her want to compete, too. And when Hassan signed Brianna up for Rainbow Soccer, a recreational soccer league in Chapel Hill, he was in awe of what he saw. 

In her first organized game, she was the only girl on the field, and a lot smaller than the others, too. 

Brianna strolled around the pitch in an oversized green T-shirt, almost looking disinterested. One of the boys on the opposing team dribbled right past her to score. She stared at him.

Then, he tried it again. This time, however, Brianna stuck out her foot, stole the ball and dribbled up the field.

Step over. Pull back. Boom. Goal. 

She followed the first goal up with four more. When the match was over, Hassan raced down the sideline to his daughter. 

“Where did you learn that?” he asked. 

Brianna responded: “I see you do it every day.” 

“She was the athlete that could see something and then just replicate it,” Hassan said. “I didn't even know she had all my moves. She had all of them, and I didn't even know it.”

‘I want to chase them’ 

Dorrance always had his eye on Brianna. 

By the time she was 12 years old, she jumped into Noon Ball games, and to a certain extent, held her own. 

“I was stunned at how good she was in possession, how good she was technically,” Dorrance said. “... She was very quiet, and her dad would certainly give her some advice periodically. But I never wanted to put pressure on her or coach her (during the game).”

Brianna committed to North Carolina in the ninth grade, checking a goal off her bucket list. But, at this point in her life, she had loftier ambitions. 

After competing with the U-14, U-17, U-19, U-20 and U-23 Women’s National Teams, she received an invitation to compete with the Senior Women’s National Team in March 2017 for the SheBelieves Cup. 

Brianna, then 16, became the youngest player in the modern era to make a tournament roster for the Senior Women’s National Team. 

Toward the end of her time at Durham’s Jordan High School, she began to realize she could one day be “the best in the world.” The Noon Ball games, national team trainings, workouts with her brothers and father — every experience had come together to make her what she had become. 

“I have huge respect for the greatest players that I've had the opportunity to train with,” Brianna said. “I think that now, I'm in a place where I want to chase them and I want to eventually become better than them.” 

‘The stars aligned’

Brianna lined the ball up at the edge of the penalty box — slightly left of the goal — and took eight steps back. 

There was just enough time for a deep breath before the whistle blew. 

Seconds later, she fired a free kick to the right of Ohio State’s five-player wall, out of reach of the Buckeye goalkeeper’s fingertips. The ball sunk into the right pocket of the net. 

As she jumped up, both fists in the air, her teammates ran toward her. Brianna had just scored the opening goal of her first collegiate match in August 2018, a 2-0 win over Ohio State, and Dorrance’s 1,000th career win.

Her family was in attendance for the full-circle moment, too. 

“That was just wild,” Hassan Jr. said. “It was just kinda like a meant-to-be moment … Just like the stars aligned for that to happen.” 

After seeing several players leave their stamps on the UNC women’s soccer program, she was able to leave her own. 

Still, Dorrance’s praise was short. As usual, he looked ahead, encouraging Brianna to do the same. 

“Wow, we’re so proud of you,” Brianna recalled Dorrance telling her. “We just need you to keep that up the rest of the season.” 

Brianna finished the season tied with then-senior defender Julia Ashley and then-sophomore forward Alessia Russo with a team-leading six goals. She was also second on the team in assists with eight. 

Dorrance wasn’t surprised, though. He’d seen it in her for years. 

“I knew what we had and when she committed, and honestly, I knew where she could go,” he said. “And she's going right to where I thought she could, which is to become one of the best players in the country.” 

From the moment Brianna arrived on campus, Dorrance was hard on her about increasing her closing speed and pressure on the ball on the defense. At first, she questioned what she had signed up for.

Now, she understands. 

“You need that along the way,” she said. “So, my dad provided it for the first 18 years of my life, and now I have Anson to do it for me.”

@pupadhyaya_

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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