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As far as college soccer programs go, it doesn’t get any bigger than North Carolina and coach Anson Dorrance.
Fresh off their 21st national championship, Dorrance and the Tar Heels will roll into the Maryland SoccerPlex as the third opponent during the Washington Spirit’s five-game “Free Spirit” preseason series.
After defeating 2012 NCAA runner-up Penn State and notching a draw against Duke, the Spirit welcomes UNC for a 3:00 p.m. kickoff on Saturday. They can expect a stiff challenge from the Heels, who are busy gearing up for another title run.
“We try to play as many professional teams as will play us,” Dorrance told WashingtonSpirit.com, who’s entering his 35th season at the helm. “It’s a huge benefit. Obviously the whole offseason is about player development, and what better match to play than against a professional team that’s going to stretch every player on the field?”
There’s a benefit for the Spirit as well, as coach Mike Jorden will have another chance to test his players and make evaluations ahead of the National Women’s Soccer League season opener at the Boston Breakers on April 14. By then, the roster will have to be trimmed from 25 players to the regular season limit of 20, and seeing his squad take on top-notch college competition will aid Jorden in the decision-making process.
“We’ve been pleased with the effort level in our first two preseason games, and I’m looking forward to some progression as we get closer to the NWSL season,” Jorden said. “Our defending has been very solid, and we’re looking to finish more chances in these final three scrimmages to begin the year with some momentum.”
The preseason series will close with a visit to Maryland on April 3 and a home match against Virginia on April 6. Tickets to the games are free, with fans only needing to claim theirs through the Washington Spirit online ticket portal (tickets.washingtonspirit.com). All tickets are general admission, with a limit of two per email address.
The Spirit notched shutouts against both the Nittany Lions and Blue Devils — two of the top offenses in the nation last year — with a wide range of players seeing time on the field. The lineup shuffling will continue this week, as they will be without four players due to international call-ups: U.S. players Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, and Canada’s Robyn Gayle and Diana Matheson.
The same goes for the Tar Heels, who will be missing 2012 Hermann Trophy winner Crystal Dunn. Dunn earned her third U.S. call-up this year, and she’ll join Krieger and Harris to take on Germany and the Netherlands early in April.
Those absences mean a chance for others to impress, and that’s an area both Dorrance and Jorden will have their eyes on.
Last year, Dorrance was missing a host of stars due to U.S. youth national team duty, and that allowed the Tar Heels to essentially form two squads: the international players and those who filled in while they were gone.
“When everyone reassembled late in the year, we had two starting units,” he said.
That depth paid off well, as UNC was able to survive a penalty shootout and two double-overtime thrillers in the NCAA tournament before knocking off Penn State to win the title.
Now, Dorrance is hoping to do it again, and that task begins with a match-up against the Spirit. The opportunity was so important, he said, the team was willing to make the necessary budget sacrifice of driving up from Chapel Hill, N.C., the day of the game.
Besides Dunn, top returners include midfielder Kelly McFarlane (three goals, two assists) and forward Kealia Ohai (six goals, six assists), who will be counted on to help mask the loss of nine seniors.
“I’m curious to see if any of them can compete at a pro level,” Dorrance said of his players. “That will be an interesting test for our kids, especially those who may aspire to play professionally. This will give them a taste of it.”
And above all, there’s the excitement that the NWSL has brought professional women’s soccer back, giving programs like UNC a next level to push its players toward — as well as a chance to test itself during the preseason.
“I love it because obviously I’m a fan of the American game, and I loved seeing us win the Olympic gold this summer,” said Dorrance, who also won the first Women’s World Cup as head coach of the U.S.
“Across the globe, a lot of the major competitive countries have excellent professional leagues, so the only way we’re going to be able to continue to compete internationally is to have our own. I like the model for the league, and all of us who are fans of the American game are thrilled that were going at it again.”