Past meets present as Anson Dorrance on hand for USWNT win over South Korea
CARY, N.C. -- Lines of fans were still filing in to WakeMed Soccer Park as Samantha Mewis headed the ball past the goalkeeper to give the United States a lead in the third minute of Sunday's game against South Korea.
Even when Mewis walloped a shot into the back of the net in the 20th minute, a handful of cars still traversed the parking lot beyond.
The time it took many to arrive was testament to how many wanted to be here, a late rush more than the two-lane road in and out could accommodate. In truth, it is a wonderful place to watch and play a game, but the U.S. women's national team has all but outgrown the venue. While it provided one of the best atmospheres, the crowd for Sunday's 6-0 win was the second smallest in 12 domestic games in 2017.
When it comes to the women's national team, a big stage is needed. That is what happens when you win three World Cup titles.
Jill Ellis, who coached the women to the 2015 World Cup crown, is still on the sideline trying to remake the roster for the next attempt. Tony DiCicco, the iconic coach who led the team to the 1999 title, died earlier this year.
Anson Dorrance, the coach who guided the Americans to win the first Women's World Cup in 1991, was on hand at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sunday. Not as an honorary guest or local dignitary. In fact, judging by the far smaller audience when North Carolina and Louisville played to a 0-0 draw Sunday morning, most of those who watched the international friendly weren't aware of his presence as the history of the U.S. women's national team brushed up against the present on soccer fields separated by a few dozen yards.
It was their loss.
"He's someone that is just such a big part of our sport," said Ellis, who not only coached against Dorrance but played against his teams. "I truly wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him committing to the game and the dedication and the leadership. He's been such a leader in our game.
"I'm happy he's still in it and doing it because he's got such an amazing spirit about him."
'Like a fine wine'
On Saturday, North Carolina assistant coach Damon Nahas ran a film session for the Tar Heels in the converted fraternity house that serves as the soccer office. Over and over again, a Louisville player pressed forward, video editing allowing her a tirelessness impossible in real life. As the clips played on the screen, he set out all the details that the Tar Heels would need to account for the next day.
From the back of the room, in a voice that speaks only in declarative sentences, Dorrance broke in to note that the subject's dad had played professional soccer in Eastern Europe.
An increasingly awkward silence filled the room. A few eyes turned toward the coach, waiting for him to continue his comment.
None came, and after the pause, laughter filled the room. His point, he noted, was that she came from a soccer background. She didn't just play the game, she understood its nuances. But the delivery and sheer esotericism of it was so quintessentially him as to elicit the response. You trust him to get to where you want to go, but the journey can be a bit of an adventure.
"He's kind of like a fine wine," said U.S. women's national team veteran Tobin Heath, who won NCAA titles with the Tar Heels in 2006, '08 and '09. "Obviously playing for him was incredible, but I love the man more and more as I get further away from that place. He's the best.
"I can't say enough about him and the effect he's had on me and soccer in this country."
In addition to the 1991 World Cup, Dorrance's college teams own 22 national championships, including 21 of 35 since the NCAA started to sponsor the sport in 1982. If the New York Yankees shaped baseball or the Boston Celtics shaped basketball, North Carolina shaped women's soccer.
His rosters in Chapel Hill supplied the national team when he was its coach from 1986-1994, taking the job just eight games into the national program's existence. And lest anyone think the scales were tilted by his allegiances, they continue to stock it. Heath was absent Sunday because of injury, but three North Carolina alums played against South Korea. And Lindsey Horan turned down North Carolina to sign a pro contract out of high school.
But the national team was, well, Dorrance explained it best himself -- as is often the case: "Every single contest for me when I was coaching the United States was personal."
Born in India, he lived much of his youth overseas. He said that as an American expatriate, he found himself constantly defending his country's foreign policy. It wasn't so much a matter of right or wrong, it was an argument to win, his hackles raised when someone else criticized what he very well might in a different setting.
"I've never been shy. I'm combative. I'm argumentative," Dorrance said. "So for me, coaching for the United States was absolutely visceral. I was going to right every wrong. Because obviously the world has a huge respect for your ability to play this game. Brazil does nothing for the rest of the world. But because they're magical soccer players, there is an incredible respect the world has for Brazil."
Dorrance loves the global reach of the game, loves that same Brazilian panache he poked with a stick. He loves to use Premier League stars to illustrate a point about his own players or to talk about Dutch training philosophy. An Arsenal scarf hangs on the door in his office. Books about Pep Guardiola and Barcelona sit on his shelves. But he was happy to be the same outsider in international soccer that he felt he had been throughout much of his life abroad.
He really set the foundation for what the national team does.Julie Foudy on former U.S. coach Anson Dorrance
"To basically have my revenge on the world by dominating the game that they invented and they play, that was one thing," Dorrance said. "That was my revenge on the way I was treated as an American abroad."
The great man theory is never the full story. Dorrance wasn't responsible for players like Michelle Akers, April Heinrichs, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and so many more falling in love with soccer. He didn't start them down that road. They propelled themselves, and they won that first World Cup. But it is impossible to look at the women's national program and not see the connective tissue that goes back to Dorrance and that freedom players had to be ruthless. It was there just this summer, when after a loss against Australia, the U.S. women rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat Brazil in San Diego.
"He really set the foundation for what the national team does," said Foudy, who is an analyst for ESPN. "His whole thing was, 'I honor and respect talent, but I admire courage. I want fighters. I want blue-collar, roll-your-sleeves up.' That was his mantra. 'The one thing we always control is we outwork everyone. We out-battle them. We are stronger mentally than anyone else because we are the United States.'"
With that cornerstone in place, and the rest of the world on notice, he went back to Chapel Hill.
At home in Chapel Hill
Dorrance didn't give up the North Carolina job for what was not yet a full-time position with U.S. Soccer (he also coached the men's team in Chapel Hill for more than a decade). He said when the opportunity to make it a full-time move presented itself, he couldn't accept. All those years spent moving around as a kid meant there was too much to lose in giving up Chapel Hill. And as brutally sarcastic and blunt as he can be -- Heath still gets texts from him after most games, and they aren't always blandly positive notes of encouragement -- he never liked cutting people with the national team. He never liked telling people who won a World Cup their time was up.
College does that on its own, graduation a constant push into the real world. And each year a new class arrives to start the process all over again. There is no more accomplished coach in the world, but he isn't compelled to work with the most accomplished players. His is the chance to work with players who might one day be world class or might travel the world to keep playing as long as possible. Or who will go on to become doctors, teachers, business owners.
"His personality is very straightforward," said Abby Elinsky, a senior who gave up a starring role at Illinois to transfer with no guarantees. "That takes a little bit to get used to, but there's nothing bad about that at all. It's actually a blessing to have that because you get the raw everything -- the nice stuff, maybe not even some nice stuff. You take that for what it is, and that molds you into the player he's expecting you to be and that you should expect from yourself."
As is often the case, there was a connection between North Carolina's coach and his counterpart Sunday. Louisville coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes grew up idolizing the Tar Heels. Like most girls, she wanted to play for them. When that didn't happen, she played so well for the University of Connecticut that she earned a pair of appearances on the national team Dorrance coached. He wasn't the coach she spent the most time around, but he was the best motivator.
Also one of Ellis' closest friends in the coaching ranks, Ferguson-Dayes was in a better position than most to appreciate the rare moment their paths intersected Sunday.
"They're both incredibly bright and incredibly good with communication," Ferguson-Dayes said. "They both can tell a story -- they both can leave you on the edge of your seat with a story, they can fill you with emotion with a story."
The day done, the two teams went their separate ways. One has the world watching.
The other a big reason that world exists.