The North Carolina women’s soccer team finished last season with its fewest wins — 12 — since 2011. Inexperience led to struggles for the Tar Heels, who enter this season with their sights set on a return prominence.
The Heels — winners of more than half (21 of 40) of the NCAA national championships in women’s soccer — lost their opening game in last season’s NCAA tournament.
Their roster featured 23 underclassmen — including 13 freshmen — and the team’s youth showed in close games. UNC’s 12-3-3 record was solid, but not up to par with the program’s standard — from 2018-21, the Heels amassed a 63-8-3 record.
“All of a sudden, the teams we’re playing against last fall had seniors and fifth years and graduate students,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “We were certainly a very good team, but we just lacked the sort of hardness that’s required to win games.”
Junior forward Avery Patterson added: “It gave a lot of freshmen opportunities to come in and step up, but it was definitely a transition period for sure.”
UNC lost a lot of its established talent last offseason — defender Emily Fox was drafted No. 1 overall by the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), forward Alessia Russo signed with Manchester United after her junior season, and midfielder Taylor Otto was drafted No. 11 overall in the NWSL draft. The key losses thrust more underclassmen into action. Against South Carolina in the NCAA tournament, the Heels played with a back line composed entirely of freshmen.
As UNC recalibrates for the 2022 season, the losses — particularly the one-score games, against opponents like South Carolina — are at the forefront of their minds.
“It was just frustrating always like looking at that stat sheet and being like, we can’t put the ball in the back (of the net) that or this keeper has made 20 amazing saves, of course, on us,” sophomore midfielder Emily Colton said.
Roster turnover isn’t new for North Carolina. The program routinely brings in large freshman classes to supplement its veteran roster, but the past two years have been an anomaly. Freshmen and sophomores weren’t just on the roster; the bulk of them were key contributors.
“Last year’s freshman class sort of took over the program by storm,” Dorrance said. “They fought their way in the field, and we’re expecting the incoming freshman class this year to have a similar kind of impact.”
Since that loss to South Carolina, the Tar Heels have been training to avenge their underwhelming season. They worked this offseason with assistant coaches to center practices around shooting and finishing. They’ve had conversations together as a team about how to right the ship.
Senior goalkeeper Claudia Dickey graduated, but UNC will bring back the bulk of last season’s roster. Due to their past success, Colton said the Tar Heels received every team’s best shot. They’re better prepared because they were thrown to the fire.
Patterson said the junior and senior class recognize the leadership role they now possess. Leadership, or lack thereof, is what she said the team “was more of lacking last last season.”
“Obviously, last season was not up to our Carolina standard,” Patterson said. “We haven’t called this yet, but I think it’s probably safe to say that it’s going to be a revenge season for us.”