You really have to hand it to the University of North Carolina’s coach Anson Dorrance. In the 32 years that the NCAA has held a national championship tournament, North Carolina has come away with the title an amazing 21 times.
Dorrance has done it primarily with tactics that are so retro that they’ve actually become progressive.
Dorrance traditionally deploys UNC in a 3-4-3. He would technically call it a 1-3-4-3 because he likes to include the goalie when talking about his formation—something he chides others for forgetting.
While at first glance the formation looks like the 4-3-3 sweeper-stopper that many Americans in the 1980’s and early 1990’s learned, the way that Dorrance runs his system is precisely why it is so successful.
The heart of Dorrance’s 3-4-3 comes from the defensive work rate of his forwards. Where he finds forwards willing to work that hard without the ball is a mystery. As Julie Foudy remarked a few years back at the College Cup, when a coach talks about playing team defense, that really just means they’ve convinced their forwards to play defense—every other player seems to just naturally know it’s part of their job.
With Dorrance’s three front-runners heavily pressuring the opposition as soon as UNC loses the ball, teams do not have the time or space they want to build possession out of the back. (It is precisely the type of football they are not prepared to play as America has strove over the last decade to create more possession-oriented players).
With the intense pressure from UNC’s forwards, opposing teams are generally forced to resort to hoofing the ball up the field and are thereby drawn into exactly the type of game that UNC wants to play.
North Carolina’s back-three are trained to step as high as possible as UNC’s advances out of the back. Therefore, when the Tar Heels do lose the ball, there is little space for the opposing midfield to operate in as UNC has shrunk the field to 30 yards of play.
When the opponent does whack it forward, their forwards are either caught off-sides, or face the unenviable challenge of trying to beat UNC’s back-three in a foot race.
UNC’s defenders are also trained to recognize the moment the ball is going to be played long and, in close concert with another, instantly begin dropping.
UNC’s goalkeeper must also be keenly aware in this situation and be able to correctly judge when, and when not to, come off her line. (Ironically, Penn State’s lone goal in the final this year was when North Carolina’s goalkeeper should have stayed home as her defender was recovering into the play).
If teams are able to break the pressure from the Tar Heels forwards, they face a difficult challenge from the UNC midfield as well.
Dorrance arranges his midfield in a diamond shape, with two wide players, one center midfielder holding and one center midfielder attacking.
The midfielders know that pressure on the ball is key to UNC’s system and they work very hard to make sure no opposing player has time to turn or pick up their head.
The outside midfielders will also come centrally when needed to apply pressure to an
opposing player who has found space.
The result is that the opponent rarely has the time to find an open attacker that might be able to take advantage of UNC’s lack of width at the back or UNC’s high defensive line.
In addition, while the strong-sided outside midfielder may come narrow to apply pressure, the weak-side outside midfielder will often drop all the way into the back line to provide defensive cover should the back-three have to over commit ball-side.
As successful as North Carolina has been in this system, in Sunday’s College Cup, Dorrance actually switched out of the system at halftime going into a 4-2-3-1.
For North Carolina, pulling out of the 3-4-3 is akin to blasphemy. However, the strategy worked perfectly, if fortuitously, as North Carolina scored 46 seconds into the second half forcing Penn State to attack and open up themselves defensively.
Additionally, speed, fitness and the college substitution rules are key to North Carolina’s success over the years.
All of UNC’s players must be incredibly fast to cover ground defensively in a short amount of time. The back-three spend the entire game stepping and then having to drop for 50-60 yard recovery runs for balls played over the top. (North Carolina beat Brigham Young University in large part due to such a recovery run).
Additionally, the rules of the college game make this type of strategy possible in the first place. The style that UNC plays certainly can produce a choppy back-and-forth game, but because of its substitutions, UNC never has to sit back. They can play their high-pressure strategy the entire game.
In Sunday’s national championship game, Tar Heels Kealia Ohai and Crystal Dunn, two of the nation’s best players, only played 66 and 54 minutes, respectively.
In the final, 21 players from UNC saw the field. Part of that was due to the lopsided scoreline near the end of the game, but in the national semifinal, UNC played 17 different players in an overtime win against Stanford.
In the game against Stanford, Dunn was on the bench for nine minutes and Ohai, whose incredible fitness was apparent in her U.S. U-20 World Cup performances, was on the bench for an incredible 28 minutes.
If UNC were forced to play by international rules, where re-entry was not allowed and each team was limited in its substitutions, North Carolina would not be able to run teams into the ground as they do.
However, Dorrance’s vast substitutions not only work on the college level, they serve other purposes as well. Team solidarity at North Carolina is legendary, something not easy to achieve and something also supremely important in the women’s game.
With his substitutions, it is easier for Dorrance to achieve “buy-in” from his players as many of them get what every players wants—playing time. It also allows him to take full advantage of NCAA scholarship restrictions and some of UNC’s built-in recruiting restrictions (North Carolina state law requires over 80% of the student body to be in-state) as some of the team’s key players are actually in-state walk-ons.
Finally, on Sunday, North Carolina benefited from another idea that Dorrance has made legendary—and instilled in the United States Women’s National Team as well—the concept of the “five-minute moment”. These moments are the first and last five minutes of each half, and the five-minute periods after a goal is scored.
On Sunday, North Carolina’s opening goal, and the game-winner, both came in those “five-minute moments”.
Congratulations to the Tar Heels and Anson Dorrance on a well-deserved 21st NCAA Championship.
John D. Halloran