When imagining the perfect UNC game day – stands packed with fans, stadium lights beaming down on perfectly trimmed grass, T-shirt tosses and "TAR ... HEELS" chants filling Dorrance Field – you might be imagining one like the North Carolina women’s soccer team had on Thursday.
Though the Tar Heels managed to pull off a 2-0 win against the Northwestern Wildcats, UNC’s play was not exactly as perfect as that night was. Coming off a challenging game against Ohio State's defense, the No. 2 Tar Heels made some improvements at the center of the park, but the Wildcats did their homework.
In Columbus, the Buckeyes pushed North Carolina around the midfield and ultimately gained five more shooting opportunities than the Tar Heels, with an 18-13 advantage. UNC head coach Anson Dorrance attributed this breakaway shooting to slow passing and the long distance left open by the center forwards and center backs.
Although North Carolina’s midfield line was more compact against Northwestern, passing still seemed to be a problem. The Wildcats used a low block in the second half to guard their defensive third, and with five and six-touch passes, the Tar Heels were too slow to penetrate the formation.
However, Northwestern’s usage of a low block is a way of showing weakness, as Dorrance puts it.
“When you play in a low block, you take no risks,” Dorrance said. “Which means you've got almost the entire team behind the ball.”
The congested midfield was cleared up with the return of sophomore midfielder Sam Meza, who only played 17 minutes in the Ohio State game because of injury. Meza was joined by first-year midfielders Lauren Wrigley and Emily Colton in the middle third, who also made key plays to move the ball forward.
North Carolina's forwards shined throughout the game.
Though only in her first year, Emily Murphy has already proven to be valuable in the attacking third, clocking two shots and an assist to senior Rachel Jones. The goal could have easily been Murphy’s, but instead of taking a risk to score it herself, she passed it on to a wide-open Jones, who scored without any defenders in her way.
“She very unselfishly delivered it to Rachel Jones,” Dorrance said. “That was probably the easiest goal she's ever scored in her life.”
Scoring her first goal of the season was a breath of relief for Jones, who was one of North Carolina’s leaders in the 2021 Women's College Cup and had totaled 11 shots in the season before the Northwestern matchup.
“It's always getting that first goal off your back,” Jones said. “It's such a big monkey off the back end, because once you get it done, everything else in the season just figures itself out.”
Senior forward Rachael Dorwart also added to the scoreboard for the Tar Heels, and she now leads the team in goals this season.
Looking ahead, the Tar Heels have one of the toughest home schedules in the country, with incoming opponents of No. 1 Florida State, No. 3 Virginia and their next contest, No. 10 Stanford.
Stanford has beat UNC in their last three meetings, including the 2019 National Championship — three overtimes that still haunt the Tar Heels.
“This is a game that we've been waiting for for two years now,” Jones said. “So I think everybody, of course, wants to get that win.”
But with a tight defense, quicker passing and risks taken on all ends of the field, the Tar Heels might just notch another team victory on their home field Sunday against Stanford.
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