Collegiate soccer programs don’t usually think of regularly playing every recruit. The focus is on playing the high-end talent.
But No. 2 North Carolina women’s soccer's head coach Anson Dorrance doesn’t follow that conventional wisdom.
UNC women's soccer will play in the Sweet 16 against Washington on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
And if his 21 national championships haven’t vindicated him, maybe the Tar Heels’ Friday 2-0 victory over Denver in the second round of the NCAA Tournament will. Once again, UNC’s younger players and reserves stepped up in place of its departed seniors — this time on the big stage.
“I think at the collegiate level, you recruit a kid, if they can get on the field a couple of minutes for you, you should play them,” Dorrance said. “And every single year, whenever we make a deep run or win a national championship, it’s extraordinary how many goals the (reserves) score for us. Basically, the girl that set up the first goal is a reserve, Rachael Dorwart. And she scored the second goal herself.”
But this isn’t just about Dorrance. This is about the players he trusts, like first-year Avery Patterson.
Dorrance said Patterson can play anywhere on the field — defense, midfield, attack. Against Denver, Patterson started at center back. On the ball, the Denver press troubled her at first, but as she settled, she was crucial in UNC’s possession play, often pushing the ball past the Pioneers’ first wave of pressure.
“She’s gonna have an extraordinary soccer career,” Dorrance said. “She’s composed, she’s athletic, she’s intelligent and she’s brave. I love watching her play.”
Patterson’s injury layoff means Friday’s backline didn’t have much time to build chemistry. A short spring season, injuries to key players and a roster of mostly first-years forced the young Tar Heel defense to grow up quickly.
“We have to be vocal and talk to each other, but also help everyone in front of us,” said first-year defender Abby Allen, who scored the first goal. “Since we’re the furthest back on the field, we can see everything. You have to be confident. It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say something.”
For stability and leadership, the young Tar Heel defense can look to goalkeeper Claudia Dickey. Though Dorrance usually opts to rotate his keepers, an injury and a departure left the junior as the only active goalkeeper on the team.
But Dickey hasn’t been shaken. Against a Denver team that loved to put crosses in the box, the defense worked to pressure the Pioneers before they got into crossing range.
If that pressure was bypassed, though, Dickey rarely missed a beat catching crosses before a striker could latch on.
“Any ball served up in the air, even against elite attacking players and great headers and tall kids like Denver had, she is so secure,” Dorrance said. “She is, in my opinion, the top goalkeeper in the collegiate game right now.”
The Tar Heels didn’t dominate this game. In fact, both teams were close to even in the first half.
Denver’s press meant UNC had to play a lot deeper than usual to break through the defense. Junior Brianna Pinto, who played as the lone striker in the first half, was often forced to drop near the halfway line to link up with the fullbacks and allow them to get forward.
That prompted Dorrance to switch to a formation he usually only uses with his bench unit. Instead of a lone “pivot” midfielder at the base of a midfield three, Dorrance used two pivots, with Pinto being one of them.
From there, UNC was much more dominant, and had 12 shots in the second half — more than double the five shots they managed in the first half.
And maybe that tactical change — and the game itself — sums up a Dorrance team at its best: talented as much as it is adaptable to any challenge thrown at them.