The UNC Legacy: A paradox for American soccer

Tom Turner, OYSAN Director of Coaching and Player Development - December 2003

The women’s soccer program from the University of North Carolina is like no other in American sport. Since 1981, when the first, and only, Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Division I Championship was held on the UNC campus, only five other schools -- George Mason, Notre Dame, Florida, Santa Clara and Portland -- have wrestled national titles away from the Tar Heels. That success congeals to an air-thinning winning percentage of .783 in collegiate championships! Victory again this year has only added to the reverence afforded a school that has thoroughly earned its reputation as a storied American sports program.

To underscore the wealth of ability from which titles have been whittled, UNC alums with United States National Team experience include Shannon (Higgins) Cirovski, Tracy (Noonan) Ducar, Lorrie Fair, Debbie Keller, Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs, Tisha (Venturini) Hoch, Tracey (Bates) Leone, Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow, Tiffany Roberts, Carla (Werden) Overbeck, and Staci Wilson. Current UNC stars answering the call to international duty include freshmen Lori Chalupny, Heather O’Reilly and Lindsey Tarpley, and senior Catherine Reddick.

The paradox of Dorrance’s success is that while his college program has single handedly pushed women’s soccer to the forefront of the American sports consciousness, and his national team of 1991 elevated the United States onto the world stage as a major player, the recipe for success is no longer cooking up the same results for the present generation of American players at international competitions. A more deeply felt ripple is observed at competitive levels around the country where impressionable coaches, thirsting for the illusionary secret to success, eagerly attempt to duplicate the UNC model, now widely available in books and on videos and DVD’s. While the more astute practitioners eventually learn the folly of mindless imitation, the remainder of the coaching fraternity innocently colludes to perpetuate a style of play that sets America further and further apart from the norms of international soccer.

It has often been cynically joked in coaching circles that, given the glut of American and foreign national team personnel available to him over the years, Coach Anson Dorrance could promote just about any known playing system and style and still win championships; however, this simplification does not give due credit to Dorrance for the program he has created and sustained over time. The historic strategy for on-field success at UNC has been both simple and effective: Play conservatively in the back; play the ball forward as early as possible, and as long as possible; play with three forwards and isolate attacking players in one-on-one duels; organize the box for crosses; press the game into the opponents half whenever possible; defend with uncompromising relentlessness; and platoon players to maintain high intensity levels. UNC is a study of sports psychology in action, with competition mapping taken to extremes in a Darwinian process noteworthy for its uniqueness in the soccer, and perhaps, sporting-world. It is an approach that National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) roster rules and the college version of soccer’s playing laws both allow and encourage. It is a formula that the savvy Dorrance has used to devastating effect.

Dorrance is a brilliant and popular clinician, and his energy and wit ensure full houses and extensive note taking wherever he appears. Additionally, ring-wearing UNC alums have been the natural targets for college athletic departments eager to appoint female coaches to head their women’s soccer programs. With, often, only successful playing careers to draw from, the UNC approach serves as the obvious point of departure for these young women who face significant challenges in establishing a toehold in the coaching profession.

In short, the Dorrance influence on women’s soccer in the United States runs deep and wide and touches all levels.

In the early days of international competition, American individuality and athleticism were the trump cards. US teams had world-class players; perhaps, in retrospect, an ironically dangerous glut of world class players, because it has proven to be very difficult for rising young stars to usurp the Grand Dames! Athletically and physically, it was often women against girls. Add the delayed societal embrace of women’s sport in many established soccer countries and it was easy to appreciate that only the pioneers of women’s soccer had any serious hope of success. The American teams of 1991- 2003 featured a nucleus of world-class stars that all arrived in their prime together, and the results were magical! Until the 2003 World Cup, a total of five championships spanning twelve years, only Norway (two) and the United States (three) had ever won a world soccer title. The landscape has changed, and the changes are dramatic!

Before going too much further, it must be noted that women’s soccer in America, while in some peril, is not yet in serious crisis and, in reality, our national teams are unlikely to fall into the second tier of world rankings anytime soon for two reasons. First, we still have most of the best soccer-athletes in the world; and second, the sheer volume of players will always produce enough talent to keep our teams competitive. The real goal, however, is consistently challenging for, and winning, world championships and the broader developmental question begs for a revision of the type of personalities that will be required by future generations. Simply, will they be more “worldly” in their soccer qualities, or will they continue to rely on perseverance and fitness and individualism?

Today, besides the top echelon of Brazil, China, Germany, Norway and Sweden, the Argentineans, the Canadians, the French, the English, the Koreans, the Russians, the Mexicans and the Nigerians represent some of the threats-in-waiting to America’s position as a dominant world soccer power. According to FIFA’s world rankings, over 100 countries now field national teams for women. The physical and athletic differences that helped maintain an uneven footing in the 1990’s are either closing or have evaporated entirely. All the major players now field their share of physically strong and powerful women, and any continuing American advantage in physical speed is being checked by growing tactical acumen and technical cleanliness. While the remaining vestiges of America’s Golden Generation will enjoy one last visit to the world’s stage at next summer’s Olympics in Greece, the ascension of Katia, Lundberg, Meinert, Pichon, Sissi, Svensson, Wen, and Wiegmann to the ranks of international stardom present the new technical standards to which all young players must aspire. The skill, awareness and drive of these women provide proof positive that, physical differences between the sexes aside, the game is "soccer played by women" and not "women’s soccer," as some would like to suggest. It has been a fascinatingly rapid evolution and the quality of play at WWC 03 was a strong indication of just how committed the rest of the world is to competing at the top levels.

Most worrying for our future is the seeming national detachment from the spacing and changing rhythms of the international game. With better athletes and more competent technicians, our elite rivals are now able to overcome many of the lingering physical differences by playing smarter soccer. They can possess the ball and they can counter-attack; they can defend in either half of the field; they are very economical with their scoring chances. Most notably, their understanding of roles and playing partners and spatial groupings brings them much closer to the tactical quality of the top international men’s game than ever before. While USA Coach April Heinrichs rightly praised her team’s ongoing defensive frugality and set piece efficiency, she also noted after the 2003 World Cup semi-final loss that, “The German team is a great combination team. They solve pressure in tight spaces so it is difficult to disrupt them. They buy themselves time by playing it wide. They buy themselves time by clearing the ball or playing it one touch. By virtue, they are composed. They are very calm and collected.” While the current shortcomings of the USA team are clearly highlighted when juxtaposed against the German performances of WC 2003, the long-term solutions are not to be found in quick fixes.

Dutch master-coach Rinus Michels noted in his book Teambuilding that the type of players who arrive at the final stage of a development pyramid are reflective of the philosophy and skills of the youth coaches serving in the trenches below. A sound player development process begins as young as age five and patiently moulds skills and ideas over the next fifteen years, or so. What the rest of the world clearly appreciates is that: it is simply not possible to foster creativity when young players are overcoached and over-organized; it is simply not possible to build technically sound players when outcome matters more than process; it is simply not possible to develop tactical awareness in young players without providing them with many first-hand opportunities to experience and learn; it is simply not possible to develop technical competence while playing in over 100 games each year and training only once or twice a week; it is simply not possible to take mechanical, functional teenagers and make them creative in circulating the ball and playing in combination to break down well-organized defenses; it is simply not possible to expose players to the basic ideas - never mind the subtleties - of the international game when they are substituted at regular intervals and have no sense of pace and rhythm; it is simply not possible to build an effective player development system while most coaches have no real appreciation for the technical and tactical sophistication of the world game.

On the men’s side of American soccer, Project 40, early overseas opportunities for rising young stars, such as John O’Brien, and the Major League Soccer philosophy of signing players such as Bobby Convey and Freddie Adu out of high school reflect the realization that college soccer is simply not good enough in preparing the top young prospects for the professional or international stage. That message is now becoming more pressing on the women’s side, but, sadly, the opportunity to matriculate gifted youngsters such as Heather O’Reilly and Lindsey Tarpley to the professional ranks is closed, at least for now.

Devoid of viable professional alternatives, there is much less optimism for seismic changes to our women’s game. The Tar Heels are home in Chapel Hill this month celebrating their 18th National Championship with an undefeated season, and there is little reason for them to change their winning ways. With no college teams evidently capable of mounting a serious threat to their dominance, why should they tinker with a magic formula? Anson Dorrance’s job is to run a clean and successful soccer program and graduate women into society. It is not his fault that his opponents have been unable to break his stranglehold and force an evolution in their playing style. The reason top teams must show patience in possessing the ball in midfield and in the attacking third is the wall of capable defenders blocking the way forward; the reason top teams must bring players out of the back and midfield is to create numbers for combination play when individuality alone will not suffice; the reason top teams circulate the ball without going forward is to take breathers and change the pace of play during 90-minute games when only three replacements are allowed. UNC has the speed and individuality, the quality and depth of numbers, and the luxury of college-friendly rules, to render the playing of a more international style unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the Tar Heels continuing NCAA success -- and Anson Dorrance’s continuing strong influence on American player development -- leaves the Tony DiCicco mantra of the USA “Winning Forever” on the international stage a much more difficult concept to envision.

So what are the alternatives?

A resurrected Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) -- or even a Women’s Major League Soccer (WMLS) -- would be a very welcome first step, and that would certainly provide the ceiling. For the floors and walls, the goal of creating an environment where players with cunning and guile and technical proficiency can emerge is much harder to achieve, but the only viable direction. For that long-term goal to find footing and eventually be realized, philosophical and structural changes are necessary.

US Soccer can step forward with the vision of sewing common development threads through the ranks of its disjointed youth organizations. National coaching education programs can serve as vehicles for change by refocusing attention on players and not teams, particularly in the national youth courses. Promotional materials, such as books, videos and DVD’s, can be produced to laud a style of player epitomizing individual and collective creativity over efficiency and athleticism. Regional coaching symposia and national workshops can become conduits for dialogue and the local evolution of a technique-based development system. Continuing education courses can deliver a more focused message to advanced practitioners, many of whom serve under-educated populations at the grassroots level. And child-friendly youth development models, particularly the small-sided games initiative, can be advanced through the 55 state associations and other affiliates.

The Amateur Division of US Soccer can become more closely connected with the player-resources of the 55 State Associations and other youth entities. Playing with and against adults has always served teenagers well in traditional soccer nations and advancing the second-class standing of the Amateur Division in America would do much to develop both boys and girls in the game. With very few exceptions, the Amateur Division functions in isolation from US Youth Soccer (USYSA), the Soccer Association for Youth (SAY), the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) and the United Soccer Leagues (USL), and this lack of continuity fails to provide a natural progression for talented teens. Ironically, the USL’s Professional Development League (PDL) and W-League currently offers a youth-to-adult conduit that could serve as either a blueprint or a prototype for a broader-based structure. However, with relations between the various governing factions remaining distanced, if not cold, the prospect of any marriage of convenience appears unlikely.

Alternatives to high school can continue to emerge through elite clubs and via regional and sub-regional leagues, enabling the top teenagers a means of escape from the Black Hole season that rarely provides service to their advanced technical and tactical needs. Elite clubs, however, must also become more cost-sensitive, and more accountable for applying the principles of periodization by orienting their calendars towards a policy of less travel and competition in favor of more frequent training and rest periods.

Finally, is a residency program for girls, such as that provided to John Ellinger’s U-17 boys, philosophically sensible, economically possible, or emotionally viable? The issues for taking girls away from home without a professional future to motivate their sacrifices may overwhelmingly eliminate this option from serious consideration. However, while the onus for broad-based change must inevitably rest with club and community coaches, the potential benefits of a national or regional residency program for elite girls deserves its space on the radar.

Anson Dorrance has rightly earned his legendary status in American soccer folklore, but his job is to continue to serve the University of North Carolina and not necessarily to develop players to beat Germany or Sweden or Norway in the World Cup or Olympic Games. That task falls on all of us who impact players and coaches at the grassroots and competitive levels. It is a daunting task, but the gauntlet has been thrown and steps must be taken to preserve our long-term status as a world soccer power.