Three weeks into the season, the No. 2 North Carolina women’s soccer team (5-0-1) will finally leave the state North Carolina for a pair of games in California next weekend against Santa Clara and No. 1 Stanford. Anson Dorrance’s team is still undefeated after its first six games and with only two games left before ACC play opens at Florida State on September 14, here’s an inventory of what’s working and what needs work for the Tar Heels:
Last week after UNC beat Central Florida, Dorrance praised the Tar Heel forwards for how they’ve been pressing opposition defenses. The Tar Heels’ head coach called the press the press “a critical part of our personality,” and highlighted starting forwards Brianna Pinto and Taylor Otto for their defensive efforts at the top of UNC’s formation.
This weekend Alessia Russo rejoined the team after missing the first four games while representing England at the Under-20 World Cup in France. Russo fills that third forward spot atop the Tar Heels’ 4-3-3 formation and notched an assist in her first game back against Providence on Thursday.
Complementing the forwards’ defensive presence is the strong offensive performance of UNC’s defense. Wing backs Julia Ashley and Emily Fox have posed consistent problems for opponents with their aggressive attacking up the side of the field. Ashley scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Providence and added another goal and an assist three days later in UNC’s 4-0 win over Marquette. Her six points lead the Tar Heels.
That even flow of defense from the forwards and attacking from defenders is how Dorrance wants his team to play. Whether they can keep it up with No. 1 Stanford and No. 3 Florida State coming up in the next two weeks may decide if this team truly is a national title contender.
To run that high-intensity, high-pressing system, UNC needs the depth to exhaust their opponents with wave after wave of pressure. As of now, that’s exactly what Dorrance has at his disposal. UNC used more players than all of their opponents except for Illinois, when Fox, Pinto, and Russo were all sidelined by their participation in the Under-20 World Cup.
In all, the Tar Heels have had eight players score goals and 14 players tally assists on UNC’s 12 goals so far. Zoe Redei fired four shots on goal and scored twice on Sunday against Marquette, Alex Kimball has thrived off the bench at both midfield and wing back. and Bridgette Andrzejewski -- UNC’s leading scorer in 2016 -- is now coming off the bench with the return of Russo.
That level of depth gives Dorrance a number of luxuries with his lineup and in-game substitutions. Kimball and Taylor Otto can both play multiple positions allowing formation adjustments without losing top quality players. Players who decline can be replaced with relative ease, a point Dorrance has made multiple times.
As the season wears down on the Tar Heels and injuries begin to pile up, being able to go two or three-deep at each position will keep UNC fresh and ready for the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
Last year was a strange one between the posts for UNC. With Samantha Leshnak as the only goalkeeper on the roster, Dorrance was forced to play only one goalie for 90 minutes every game instead of his preferred split-half system.
With the addition of Claudia Dickey, the No.24 recruit in the 2018 class per Top Drawer Soccer, UNC is back to having keepers split halves each game and so far has reaped the benefits. Through six games, the Tar Heels have allowed just two goals while holding opponents scoreless four times.
Leshnak made 47 saves and posted a 0.53 goals against average last season. This season she's conceded both of UNC’s goals but also leads the team with nine saves. Dickey has faced less pressure but is yet to allow a goal and made five saves in her six appearances so far. The freshman from Charlotte faced her toughest test against Texas when she made four saves over the second half and overtime to preserve a 1-1 tie.
Leshnak typically starts the games with Dickey coming in to play the second half and Dorrance seems to have confidence in both of his options at keeper, meaning the Tar Heels will likely ride the goalie duo through ACC and postseason play.
Before Sunday’s 4-0 offensive explosion, UNC had gone three straight games scoring only one goal. The Tar Heels were able to pull out 1-0 wins in two of those games, but the lack of scoring poses a huge concern moving into true road games against national title contenders.
Russo led the team in goals last season, and her return after missing the first four games should calm some of the Tar Heels’ concerns. The English sophomore tallied an assist in her season debut.
Still, the Tar Heels need to capitalize on the chances they get. They’ve outshot every opponent except for UCF -- and most by a wide margin -- but against stronger opponents that disparity in scoring opportunities is sure to shrink. Last season’s NCAA Tournament loss to Princeton proved that the difference between winning and losing will come with how each team executes with the chances it has. In that game, the Tar Heels lost 2-1 in overtime despite outshooting the Tigers 24-8.
It feels strange for a UNC team to have limited experience in the NCAA Tournament, but in the past three seasons, the Tar Heels have only reached the Women’s College Cup once -- in 2016. Only five of the starting 11 were on the team for that run.
UNC has won just one ACC or NCAA championship since its last national title in 2012, that being the ACC Tournament Title last season. For a program with such an esteemed history, this combination of youth and a lack of winning experience among leadership could be a question mark down the stretch.
Nowhere is this inexperience more critical than at the back line. UNC starts three sophomores alongside senior Julia Ashley. Though redshirt seniors Maggie Bill and Alex Kimball offer some experience off the bench, the bulk of minutes will be played by underclassmen. The Tar Heels’ defense is gelling and improving in terms of movement and communication, but it certainly hasn’t yet faced an attack as potent as Stanford. The Cardinal are averaging 3.5 goals per game so far this year and will give Dorrance an early look at the makeup of his defense.