Commentary

Tar Heels finding their form

Originally Published: October 25, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

NEWTON, Mass. -- The numbers come at you like a deluge. North Carolina has won better than 90 percent of its games in Anson Dorrance's 33 seasons. The Tar Heels have captured 20 of the 29 national championships held since women's soccer became an NCAA sport, including 11 unbeaten seasons amidst those NCAA championships and another en route to an AIAW championship.

[+] EnlargeAnson Dorrance
Jeffrey A. CamaratiAnson Dorrance is pleased with the progress his North Carolina team has made from the start of the season heading into its final stretch.

For goodness' sake, the program went more than 600 games, a stretch that lasted 25 years, without losing a game by more than one goal.

Yet since nobody had a record book handy to hold overhead, exactly none of that was of the slightest help in keeping Dorrance and his players dry as rain poured down on a cold, wet night in Boston.

History can be unhelpful that way. It's certainly of little use if you want to understand these Tar Heels.

North Carolina won the night after it ventured into the rain to practice, beating Boston College 1-0, but a loss by the same score at Virginia Tech on Sunday, the second in three seasons against the Hokies, dropped the Tar Heels to 11-3-1 and second in the ACC. It's a record still excellent by almost any standard, except perhaps that of a program in which the next loss will match the most in a single season.

This is not the world of two or three decades ago, one in which the 1992 North Carolina team outscored opponents 132-11 and didn't lose a game. This is not yet a team that has shown itself capable of dominating the new world, as the 2008 North Carolina team did in outscoring opponents 89-16, including 17-2 in the NCAA tournament. But as the architect of arguably the most successful program in the history of college sports stood that night in the rain, its relentless cadence crowded out by the chatter and laughter of players preparing for practice, he didn't sound worried about a plebeian present.

"Even though it's miserable night, they're all having fun," Dorrance said at the time. "And you know what, I just can't believe I'm paid for this job. These are great kids, [who] unfortunately have to live with this legacy of this huge history that they have. And yet early in the season, I thought we struggled a bit, but now we're starting to play a little better. We're getting some better results, and it's just fun. The thing that's fun in coaching at this level, and for a lot of us that coach at the youth level, is watching the kids improve. And they're so much better now than they were in August."

Of course, whatever else happens this season, this team has earned a place in the history books. Dorrance is synonymous with the 3-4-3 formation the way Bill Walsh is with the West Coast offense. North Carolina's 3-4-3 was an aggressive alignment that few other programs were willing to mimic. It allowed the Tar Heels to exert maximum pressure on their opponents, albeit at the risk of creating a lot of space and opportunity behind three defenders holding a high line, and became a sort of visible reminder that the Tar Heels really were playing a different game than most of their opponents.

All of which makes the current 4-2-3-1 formation feel a bit like watching Walsh's 49ers run the wishbone.

[+] EnlargeCaitlin Ball
Jeffrey A. CamaratiThe Tar Heels' results have improved since making adjustments, including moving freshman Caitlin Ball to the starting lineup as a center back.

North Carolina's shift to a 4-2-3-1 is partly pragmatic, an assist for a roster depleted by injuries. Dorrance felt fatigue played a role in overtime losses at home against Texas A&M and Virginia in September, and the extra defender helped keep the back line fresh. In five games since making the move, including games against No. 3 Duke, No. 4 Wake Forest and No. 13 Boston College, North Carolina has allowed only the lone goal Virginia Tech scored Sunday. And as a sign of the times, it's worth noting that the Tar Heels are doing it with two walk-ons starting at center back, junior Megan Brigman and freshman Caitlin Ball, and half of a goalkeeping platoon occupied by Adelaide Gay, a transfer from Yale whom Dorrance tried to dissuade from coming, seeing little potential for playing time.

But the formation shift also stemmed from something the coach saw in the Women's World Cup that made the 4-2-3-1 ideal for maintaining the core philosophy of North Carolina soccer.

"I loved watching the French play this summer; they were my favorite team in the World Cup," Dorrance said. "I loved the way they played the United States in the 4-2-3-1. So even though the system has changed a little bit, our philosophy hasn't. What I loved about the French in that shape was their pressure, and obviously that's one of our characteristics, is to press teams. … We also want to play the game as fast as possible; we want that to separate us as well. And watching the French play, again, they just play the game so quickly."

Relative to the level of competition, Dorrance feels he has the same kind of attacking pieces as France. Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai and Courtney Jones can cause headaches for opponents in one-on-one situations. What hasn't always been there this season, despite an offense that ranked 19th nationally before the weekend, is the linking play that France got in spades from midfielder Louisa Necib. That may be changing with the return of junior Alyssa Rich. North Carolina's leading scorer when she suffered an injury 10 games into the 2010 season, Rich has battled a stress fracture in her leg, a chipped ankle, back problems and a diagnosis of rhabdomyolysis, a condition related to the breakdown of muscle fibers, in the past 12 months.

[+] EnlargeAlyssa Rich
Jeffrey A. CamaratiUNC is working junior Alyssa Rich back into the lineup after missing extensive time due to injury and illness.

She is finally sound of body, and a missed road trip earlier this season (due to the ankle injury) gave her time alone to work on the mental side and remember the reason she put up with all the pain in the first place.

"That's the reason why I play anyway," Rich said. "I mean, winning is great and I love the girls, but I play because it's fun. Since then, with the confidence, I've felt great. So it's all coming back. Each game gets a little bit better."

Whether it's waiting for Rich to get healthy or adjusting to a new formation, this isn't a North Carolina team that was going to be in championship form from the get-go. This particular team may never get there, or it may be the team holding the trophy after the College Cup. Nothing done so far rules out either possibility.

"I think for us, we don't necessarily see it as us being compared to other [North Carolina] teams," Rich said. "We see it as a challenge. Whenever Anson brings up another player or brings up a past team, we see it as, 'That's great. That was an awesome team. We want to be just as good as them, if not better.' And we're a huge competitive team so it's always fuel for the fire. If you tell us one thing, we're going to go and try to beat that."

A day after the rain-soaked practice, North Carolina earned a win against Boston College. It was not a clinical performance -- Boston College is too good on its home field for that and was the more aggressive team in the first half. Dorrance wasn't convinced his halftime message had sunk in, so when the players took the field for the start of the second half, he called them back over and asked if they wanted to go back to the 3-4-3, a less ideal strategic move but one that provide the comfort of familiarity. The lone senior on the field, Courtney Jones, spoke up and asked for a chance to keep trying.

"That was the answer I wanted to hear," Dorrance said. "I wanted them to basically say, 'No, no, no; we can play better than we did in the first half.'"

They were better in the second half, just as they're better now than they were in August. That's the history they worry about.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.