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'Not what our hearts wanted': British women's soccer stars bid sad farewell to UNC

Junior defender Lois Joel (27), prepares to throw the ball back into play during a game against Clemson on Saturday, Oct. 5th, 2019. Joel, along with English teammates Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy, will return to England in the upcoming season, citing uncertainty about COVID-19.

For the North Carolina women’s soccer team, Aug. 12 should have been a normal day of practice. 

And from the outside, it probably looked like one. The team went to Dorrance Field, did some warm-ups and played a scrimmage, all the things a team should do if it hopes to make its third consecutive NCAA Championship game. But for striker Alessia Russo and defender Lotte Wubben-Moy, the evening was somber. For midfielder Lois Joel, the melancholy would only come in retrospect. It was the last time they would play together on Dorrance Field as Tar Heels.

The three English seniors announced that, because of the uncertainty surrounding the season due to COVID-19 and the postponement of the NCAA Championships, they would forgo their final year of eligibility and return to England to play professional soccer in the upcoming season. 

The British invasion that helped propel UNC to back-to-back Women’s College Cup finals is over.

“The past couple of months have been very emotional and very much going back and forth with things,” Russo said. “I think it was a decision that we had to make for the best of our soccer career and maybe not what our hearts wanted.”

Last season, the three played crucial roles on the team. Russo had her best season at UNC yet, notching 13 goals and three assists, and was named the 2019 ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Beyond her rock-solid defending, Wubben-Moy became an important chances creator, with her six goals and seven assists, tied for third and fourth on the team, respectively. 

And despite transferring from West Virginia only a year prior, Joel’s versatility was on full display, bagging eight assists in the year from various positions on the field.

This all combined for another run to the Women’s College Cup final, where the Tar Heels fell just short against the Stanford Cardinal in penalties. Now, because of pandemic-induced cancellations, the English trio will lose their last shot to win it all.

“We came to UNC to win national championships and obviously we came short twice, losing in the final,” Wubben-Moy said. “And then when the NCAA championships were canceled, that was probably the final blow, and we were like, ‘OK, we actually have to think about coming home.’” 

To hear them tell it, it wasn’t losing another shot at the title that hurt the most; it was the idea of leaving head coach Anson Dorrance, their assistant coaches and teammates in Chapel Hill after coming so close to national glory on multiple occasions. 

“It was hard to talk about because you don't want to seem like, ‘Oh, I don't want to be with the team,’ or, ‘I want to go home,’” Wubben-Moy said. “But you always had it in the back of your mind. So, while Alessia and I were in the same position, I still felt like I was on an island, and I'm sure Alessia felt the same way. It just felt wrong, having to think about it.”

Joel made her decision just shortly after Russo and Wubben-Moy. 

“Two days (after Aug. 12), I had made my choice,” Joel said. “Before that, I hadn’t even really thought of leaving, so it was strange. It’s super sad to leave Carolina like this — there’s not much closure. I’m just happy that I transferred and ended up here, and I’m really grateful to Anson and everyone else.”

Though Dorrance was not made available for an interview, he will surely miss the explosiveness and dynamism that the departing Brits brought to the team. Dorrance and the other coaches, per the trio, were a key factor in helping them reach the decision to return to the U.K., as they all believed it would be best for their continued playing careers.

“I hadn't even thought about going home as an option,” Joel said. “But Anson gave me the green light and basically said, ‘I think that’s best for you.” And obviously, Anson's a great coach and an even better mentor, so what he says holds a lot of weight. And that's why I decided to do it.”

If the season occurs, there will naturally be questions as to how the team will cope with losing three of its most important players. However, if nothing else, fans can take comfort in the fact that Russo, Wubben-Moy and Joel consider their impact on UNC to only be as big as the impact UNC has left on them. 

“Hopefully we will see some more British girls go over and experience what we did at UNC. That would be really cool,” Russo said. “But if I haven't left a legacy there, it's definitely left a legacy on me because I'm 100 percent a better person coming from UNC than I was going into it.”


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