Soccer is an imperfect game for deciding champions.
Minutes of possession and passing can turn into nothing with one bad touch or missed pass. With goals hard to come by, a single defensive miscue or offensive moment of brilliance can shift the result and define legacies.
The North Carolina women’s soccer team was the sport’s latest victim on Sunday afternoon. In front of a full stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, the Tar Heels matched Florida State with eight shots per side, but lost the NCAA Championship Game 1-0 on Dallas Dorosy’s 60th minute goal, failing to secure the program’s 23rd national title.
UNC head coach Anson Dorrance, in his 40th season in charge of the Tar Heels’ women’s team, knows how cruel his sport can be.
“I’m very proud of my kids,” Dorrance said. “I thought they played well. Soccer is a bizarre game — (it’s) very punishing.”
Sunday’s meeting was the third of the season between the Tar Heels and Seminoles. UNC won 1-0 at Florida State in mid-September, but lost to their conference rivals by a score of 3-2 in the ACC Championship Game just four weeks before the NCAA title. Despite a ferocious two-goal comeback in that game, Dorrance insisted that his Tar Heels were outmatched by the Seminoles on that November afternoon.
On Sunday, though, Dorrance thought UNC “closed the gap.” The Tar Heels pressed Florida State’s defense and attacked from the game’s first minute, when forward Alex Kimball attempted a shot that was ably handled by FSU keeper Caroline Jeffers.
Kimball’s shot was the Tar Heels’ only attempt on goal in the half, but they threatened other times, earning three corner kicks and holding dangerous possession for periods of the half. UNC’s best chance of the half came in the 36th minute when Rachael Dorwart won a cross in the air but steered her shot just left of the goal.
The Seminoles offered plenty of their own attacks and finally broke through in the 60th minute when Dorosy redirected Deyna Castellanos’ cross for her seventh and final goal of the season. Dorosy scored twice in the Seminoles’ ACC Championship Game victory as well.
Florida State’s goal seemingly came from nothing: Castellanos was double-teamed but managed to slip a dangerous ball into the feet of Dorosy who beat defender Lotte Wubben-Moy to the ball and tipped it in.
“We were in a great position — one player against two, I’ll take that any day,” Dorrance said. “Somehow that assist was magnificent because we didn’t close with our first defender and all of a sudden they get that ball across. We weren’t even vulnerable on the goal.”
With thirty minutes to work with, the Tar Heels answered the goal with intensity, pouring players forward to create four shots in the final thirty minutes. Only one of those shots forced Jeffers to make a save, but even more crosses from defenders Julia Ashley, Emily Fox and Wubben-Moy pressured the Seminoles’ defense.
“I think we got right on top of them (after the goal) and it was really close but we weren’t able to get it done,” Ashley said of UNC’s response. “It was one pass, one shot away.”
Florida State, who finished seventh in the ACC standings over the regular season, finished their season with a nine-game unbeaten streak, taking home ACC and NCAA championships in the process. The Seminoles did so through solid possession and crisp passing, making themselves difficult to take off the ball without drawing a foul.
UNC’s run to the national championship was far from easy. The Tar Heels lost leading scorer Alessia Russo to a broken leg in a senior night victory over Wake Forest. They rebounded from the loss, making the ACC Championship and earning a No.1 seed. After three comfortable wins, UNC needed penalty kicks to beat UCLA and then advanced to the NCAA Championship with a 1-0 overtime win over Georgetown thanks to the senior Ashley scoring on an end-to-end run.
“The postseason especially is what I’ll remember the most — how we’ve really grown as a team,” Ashley said of her time at UNC. “We really are truly a family.”
Ashley will move on to the professional ranks. Dorrance predicted she’ll be taken in the top five of the upcoming NWSL draft and said she has the ability to start in the pros as a rookie.
The Tar Heels meanwhile will look to build off of their run, one that got UNC the furthest its been since winning the NCAA Championship in 2012. Despite losing Ashley, Dorian Bailey, Alex Kimball and keeper Samantha Leshnak, plenty of talented players will return for Dorrance’s 41st season as head coach. Russo, Dorwart, and Brianna Pinto will head an already dangerous attack, while the defense returns three of its four starters, including Fox who earned a call-up to the U.S. National Team in early November.
But following a long postseason run and devastating defeat, redshirt sophomore midfielder Taylor Otto wasn’t completely ready to turn the page just yet, instead appreciating the Tar Heels’ season-long efforts.
“This team has been unbelievable and we were so happy to be here,” Otto said. “We fought so hard to get here and we deserved to be here.”