By Terry Jacoby, FUEL Soccer Contributor
When legendary coach Anson Dorrance took over the North Carolina women’s soccer program 39 years ago, he had a simple philosophy that playing time was earned not entitled. The best players played regardless of what grade they were in and that philosophy has never changed over the four decades in which the Tar Heels have won 20 National Championships.
Two freshmen who have earned starting spots this year for Carolina are Lotte Wubben-Moy and Alessia Russo. Both standout players are from England and Dorrance never hesitated putting them in the starting lineup as soon as they arrived in Chapel Hill.
But when the two players had to return home for a week in September to play for their country’s U-19 National Team, Dorrance was left with two holes to fill for a game at Florida State. Again, he didn’t check his roster to see what seniors he should play. He went with the best players, including another freshman, Taylor Otto, who Dorrance calls “an absolutely fantastic player.”
Dorrance said such a philosophy is dependent on having strong senior leadership.
“It’s where the nobility of your leadership is tested,” Dorrance said. “If you truly are a leader, then you don’t let prejudice or your own self-interests creep in to how you treat a freshman. You embrace your role and support the team in its goals and mission, even if that means less playing time for you.
“Competitive athletics comes down to who wins the playing time and who wins the spot. Some seniors feel they are entitled to playing time because they are seniors, and I’ve had some like that over the years. But it doesn’t work like that nor should it. If the freshman is clearly better, you play the freshman.”
Otto redshirted in 2016 while competing with the U.S. U-20 National Team as a starting center back at the World Cup. But before she headed overseas last year to play for her country, she reported to Chapel Hill and played during the 2016 spring season for the Tar Heels.
“I think that time here helped her earn a starting spot on the U-20 team, and it also showed us that we had a fantastic player coming to us in 2017,” Dorrance said. “And she was one of the reasons we won the Florida State game. She was taking the position of the starting center back (Wubben-Moy) who went back to England. So the fact that we had a player on our team who had played that position in a World Cup ready to go was a huge benefit for us and she played a very good game and was one of the margins of victory for us.”
Dorrance said he is seeing more players like Otto finishing high school early and arriving in Chapel Hill in the spring to get a jump on not only soccer, but school.
“We certainly encourage it,” he said. “They get to establish themselves academically in a semester where they are not overwhelmed with a soccer schedule. The spring soccer schedule isn’t what it is in the fall.
“These players are competitors and it’s a huge advantage for these kids to come in a semester early and try to win a starting spot in the fall. And let’s face it, most of the second semester for high school seniors is just treading water. Why not get to college and challenge yourself immediately instead of coasting for a few months in high school?”
Carolina has never had an issue playing freshman.
Dorrance, a former U.S. Women’s National Team head coach, said this year is a “continuation of that philosophy.” And he has the numbers to back it up.
The Tar Heels started six different freshmen in just the first month of the season.
That class included the two English players, Otto and Emily Fox (forward, Ashburn, Va.), a longtime member of U.S. national teams. Fox was a member of U.S. U-20 team in 2017, with trips to Birmingham, England and Rheine, Germany, and a pair of team camps in California.
“We’ve been in a position to recruit some fantastic players over the years and have never hesitated to start a freshman,” he said. “I was very happy with this year’s class and knew it was a good class.”