Following a 3-1 victory over Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance said his program needed "to figure out a way to win national championships again."
Playing in a new shape on Friday, the longtime head coach — who's won 20 NCAA championships with UNC, the last of which came in 2012 — thinks he may have found the answer.
UNC has relied on a 4-3-3 formation all season, a standard structure that balances the defensive fortitude of a four-person back line and the explosive potential of a three-person attacking group. It's been effective for the most part, but Dorrance said he felt he wanted to create more scoring chances for his team, especially considering UNC's stagnant offense in the ACC Tournament.
Against the Bulldogs, the Heels unveiled a 3-5-2, a more modern formation defined by its three-person back line and two roving wingbacks that have the flexibility to move up the field and push the attack or drop back to defend.
"It gives us an opportunity to have a lot of people in the attacking box," Dorrance said. "If you think about it, the two front runners can pin a (four-person back line) back, so now we have numbers up in midfield. If their four backs are dealing with my two forwards, we have numerical superiority."
The numbers game paid off for the Tar Heels, who were more easily able to build up possession and get the ball to their most dangerous weapons. Early in the second half, UNC went up 3-0, the largest deficit Georgia had faced all season.
Two of those goals came from redshirt first-year Ally Sentnor, who secured her second brace in as many games. Sentnor put UNC on the board in the 23rd minute with an impressive unassisted goal. At the top of the penalty arc, the first-team All-ACC forward spun past her defender, side-stepped another and booted the ball into the bottom left corner of the goal. Thirty-four minutes later, Sentnor netted the dagger off a through ball from Isabel Cox.
"I'm really proud of us because we haven't really trained a lot in (the 3-5-2), and everyone really came out with great attitudes and we really stuck to the formation," Sentnor said. "And I think it really worked. We used every player and people made unselfish runs for each other to help us score."
Junior Talia DellaPeruta, who started in place of injured star midfielder Sam Meza, also thrived from the attacking midfielder position. Assisted by junior Avery Patterson, who was playing at wingback, the U.S. U20 national team talent from Cumming, Ga., scored on a counter in the opening minutes of the second half to put UNC up, 2-0.
"I saw Avery running inside, and I just knew that (once) she slipped it to me I was wide open," DellaPeruta said. "Avery played a perfectly weighted pass that I could hit one time with my right foot and I was ready for that shot. And I was just so happy when I went in."
UNC's offense has had a clear resurgence to start the tournament, although its opponents haven't quite been up to the level of the top ACC programs that the Tar Heels have faced this year. UNC will have its biggest test yet on Saturday morning when the team faces off against the sixth-seeded BYU Cougars at Dorrance Field at 11:30 a.m.
The Cougars defeated three-seed Stanford on penalty kicks just before the UNC-Georgia game, and are on a hot streak after going undefeated in West Coast Conference play. The teams are familiar with each other, though — UNC defeated BYU 2-0 in an exhibition match prior to the start of the season.
Dorrance said BYU can beat its opponents off the dribble and finish its scoring chances from long range, plus its players don't tire easily. The Cougars are the exact type of challenge that UNC accounted for in implementing its new formation.
"We were looking at the teams we might have to play down the road, and we're thinking this shape might be the most effective shape for us to play against some of these teams we have to beat," Dorrance said. "So to some extent, it was a practice session against Georgia."
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