The UNC Legacy A paradox for American soccer

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					               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

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

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.


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