For a program that boasts 22 NCAA titles and 21 ACC Tournament titles, team success is defined by the postseason.
That’s unfortunate for this year’s No. 3 UNC women’s soccer team, a squad that has already proved more than enough.
After dropping consecutive games at No. 6 Santa Clara and No. 1 Stanford in early September, Anson Dorrance’s Tar Heels ripped off a perfect ACC season, winning all 10 of their games and outscoring opponents 25-3 in that span. UNC (15-2-1, 10-0 ACC) cruised to its first outright ACC title since 2010 and the program’s first unbeaten and untied conference record since 2006, earning Dorrance his 11th ACC Coach of the Year award and six players spots on the All-ACC team.
The Tar Heels’ perfect conference season could in part be attributed to the ACC’s unbalanced schedule which saw them avoid the conference’s second and third-place teams — No. 5 Duke, No. 11 Virginia. Instead, UNC faced five of the six teams that failed to reach the ACC tournament.
But a friendly schedule doesn’t explain away the Tar Heels’ historically great regular season. This team is good.
Paced by the NCAA’s 10th best defense in goals-against average, UNC trailed for a grand total of 10 minutes and 51 seconds in ACC play. They shut out eight of their 10 opponents and never allowed multiple goals in regulation.
Senior goalie Samantha Leshnak allowed two goals through the 18-game regular season and led the ACC with her .182 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage. Claudia Dickey split time with Leshnak and her .83 goals-against-average would have ranked sixth in the conference if she played enough minutes to qualify.
UNC’s back line of Lotte Wubben-Moy, Julia Ashley, Brooke Bingham, and Emily Fox made their keepers’ lives easier, holding opponents to just 130 shots on goal compared with 317 shots on goal for UNC over the year. Fox was rewarded for her lighting speed and solid defending on the wing with a selection on Friday to the U.S. National Team for its November friendlies in Portugal and Scotland.
The Tar Heels’ offense sputtered early in the season but found its stride in conference play, averaging 2.5 goals per game. Alessia Russo — who broke her leg in a senior night win against Wake Forest — scored six times to repeat as UNC’s leading scorer, but the team’s strength on offense is its depth. Seven different Tar Heels scored three or more goals over the regular season and eight players tallied at least three assists.
Taylor Otto has been a model of efficiency in the UNC midfield. She’s scored five goals on just 16 shots and added five assists as well. Freshman Brianna Pinto started her UNC career with a bang when she scored on a free kick in her debut against Ohio State and kept that momentum going through the season as she scored four goals and assisted on four more.
Despite an offensively solid conference season, goalscoring is clearly still this team’s biggest question mark. Taking out 7-1 and 5-1 routs of Syracuse and Louisville, UNC averaged just 1.63 goals per game. The offense was explosive at times, but it also failed to score multiple goals in half of its 18 games.
Looking ahead to the ACC Tournament, UNC defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday in its first-round game. The Tar Heels beat the Hokies 2-0, just as they did in Blacksburg, Va. earlier this month, The Tar Heels will face Clemson in Friday evening’s semifinal.
UNC’s toughest competition for the conference crown will come from No. 11 Virginia, who faces Florida State on Friday in the other semifinal. The Cavaliers boast the conference’s best offense, averaging 2.71 goals per game en route to a 14-3 regular season. They take on the Seminoles, who upset No. 5 Duke 1-0 on the road last Sunday.
Potentially the best news for the Tar Heels heading into the conference tournament is its location. UNC will host the first round game at Cary’s WakeMed Park before the rest of the tournament moves to Cary for a “neutral” location. UNC played its final five home games at WakeMed after Hurricane Florence damaged their set up at Finley Fields in Chapel Hill. UNC won all five games at WakeMed.
After a strong non-conference schedule and a dominant ACC performance, an ACC Tournament title would all but assure the Tar Heels of a top NCAA Tournament. Doing so would clinch home field advantage until the College Cup — which will also be held in Cary.