Following a recent offensive dry spell and a 2-1 loss to Virginia Tech last week, the North Carolina women’s soccer team knew it needed to return to Chapel Hill and make a statement against Pittsburgh.
Deviating from the team’s usual norm of tactical buildup and dominating possession, the Tar Heels used clinical shooting and creative goal-scoring opportunities from the entire lineup to break the game open and pick up a much-needed 4-0 win over the Panthers.
“That’s attacking with variety,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “We don’t want to have a predictable attack because then a team can basically sort out how to defend, so the variety in which we scored tonight I think is fantastic for us."
Entering the contest, Pittsburgh’s defense was in top form. The Panthers had only allowed five goals in their five-game winning streak, which helped them catapult to No. 2 in the RPI rankings – a metric that determines the overall statistical dominance of a team. On Thursday, the Tar Heels picked apart the unit with ease, registering 22 shots with 10 coming on goal.
Although four different players found the back of the net, it was junior midfielder Sam Meza’s strike that set the tone for the evening.
Following a six-game scoring drought, Meza admitted to the challenge of finding the perfect balance between setting up teammates and looking for opportunities of her own. But when the Tar Heels needed an offensive breakthrough in the 12th minute, she chose the latter option and buried a strike from just outside the box into the bottom right corner.
“Ally (Sentnor) was there, and I screamed as loud as I could because I thought I had a pretty good angle,” Meza said. “She listened to my voice, and I took a touch and tried to whip it in, and it was kind of like slow motion.”
While Meza’s goal might’ve given her some reassurance to her scoring ability, two other Tar Heels experienced raptures in their own right.
Just weeks removed from representing Team USA at the Women's U-20 World Championships, junior forward Talia DellaPeruta was sidelined with a knee injury that caused her to miss the team's first 10 games. She worked her way back to the pitch on Sept. 25 and was a substitute in the team’s last two contests.
When she came off the bench in just her third game of the season on Thursday, DellaPeruta immediately picked up an assist by passing the ball to junior Paige Tolentino, whose cross found the head of senior Tori Hansen to extend the Tar Heels’ lead. Minutes later, after a chaotic skirmish near the net denied her two chances to put the team up 3-0, she inched a foot inside the box and fired an attempt to the top shelf for her first goal of the season.
For a player that has started 22 games for the team in her three-year career, DellaPeruta's instant impact against the Panthers marked a step in the right direction as she tries to work her way closer to her peak.
“I’m really, really close to 100 percent,” DellaPeruta said. “The more games I get like this helps me feel game speed again, so to come out and get a goal and an assist, my confidence is super high right now.”
Before the season, Dorrance described this group as the “deepest team he's ever had,” and with 26 players taking the field on Sunday, that sentiment was once again on display. But even with an abundance of talent in the attacking front, Dorrance said first-year Maddie Dahlien has continued to stand out.
According to the team’s InStat evaluation system, Dorrance said that Dahlien had been the Tar Heels’ best player over the last four games, which earned her the start in the second half. In the 60th minute, she received a through pass and darted past the final defender before beating the keeper in a one-on-one scenario for her first career goal.
“Her goal, that’s track speed, baby,” Dorrance said. “She was making plays all night.”
With just five games remaining until the start of the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels will still have to gain some ground if they hope to clinch their fourth regular season conference title in five years. The team is currently two games behind reigning national champion Florida State, who boasts a 5-0 record in ACC play.
But with the final tests looming, the team hopes that Thursday’s explosion can help the offense reach its full potential.
“This team has huge upside,” Dorrance said. “We’re going to be a very difficult team to play against if we continue to improve at the rate we’re improving.”
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