Five members of the USA's 2019 World Cup squad played for Anson Dorrance at UNC -- Crystal Dunn, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Allie Long, Jessica McDonald -- as did England's Lucy Bronze, New Zealand's Katie Bowen, and Netherlands’ coach Sarina Wiegman. (Photos by Jeffrey A. Camarati courtesy of UNC SID)
SOCCER AMERICA: Your overall impression of the 2019 Women’s World Cup?
ANSON DORRANCE: It was absolutely extraordinary. I've obviously watched them all, and in my opinion this was the best World Cup from every perspective of any World Cup that I've ever watched. I absolutely loved it.
Not just because we won, but because so many things are getting better.
SA: Such as?
ANSON DORRANCE: Everything was done so well, from the game coverage to the overall coverage and the investment Fox made. The quality of people they hired to do the color commentating and play-by-play -- but also the Rob Stone, Alexi Lalas, Heather O'Reilly group. They were absolutely fantastic.
And the amount of great conversation that was developed in those platforms. I had the chance, because obviously I'm not working as much in the summer, to watch almost every second. Not just of every game, but also the coverage. And the Fox coverage was just remarkable. And all the different things that spun off it.
SA: Before we get to the USA’s performance, what did you find remarkable about the competition?
ANSON DORRANCE: This World Cup was the emergence of Europe. Right now, it's Europe and the United States because Europe has eclipsed Asia, eclipsed South America, and it's not just like one or two teams in Europe. A whole group has moved ahead.
And that's a credit to the infrastructure, leadership, investment and commitment of all the different bodies in those countries who decided to make their women's soccer teams more of a priority. And that will be a wonderful message for Asia and Africa and South America to look up and say, you know what, maybe we need to make a comparable investment.
SA: What about the overall level of play?
ANSON DORRANCE: There was also a jump in the level of the game itself.
That run that the U.S. team went on to go through those collection of very good teams was formidable. Obviously, it starts out with a relatively soft group with Thailand and Chile. But the run from beating Sweden, to beating Spain, to beating France, to beating England, and winning the whole thing against Holland, that was an extraordinary crucible of games.
I think in every respect, the players, the coaching staff, everyone associated with the U.S. women's national team should be given full credit. Because that was a blistering and difficult run for them to make.
I think Jill Ellis pushed all the right buttons, made all the right decisions, and she should get full credit.
The other thing I absolutely loved was the emergence of Megan Rapinoe as an iconic figure.
ANSON DORRANCE: I think she joins the very small group of iconic players – from Mia Hamm back in the day to Brandi Chastain and her iconic moment in 1999 – in galvanizing the women's game at the highest level. And not just for her playing performance.
In fact, I would say even more for the way she governed the press conference, and the things she said, and the way she said it. And the things she talked about were extraordinary, done in the right way, a perfect balance, a little bit of bite and a lot of humor. And she was magnificent.
I think you could design a communication course at a university all around Megan Rapinoe at this World Cup. She did so many things so well, including obviously her social justice platform, which was expressed in the most positive way.
One of my favorite quotes of the event was when she said, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there.”
And she's doing it with a smile on her face, causing everyone in the room to laugh.
Because you know what she's doing? She's calling us all on the carpet for not embracing the culture that she's a part of and who she is. But she's doing it with the right spirit, with no ire or condescension -- but with pride. And she did it in a wonderful way. She was joyful while she was sharing all this.
And for those of us who sit in academic environments and have to address ivory tower issues about the value of athletics -- oh my gosh is she a champion now for it. She's established athletics as something extraordinarily valuable for the culture of girls and women. Because she's emerged from her athletic experience with this amazing confidence and joy of life, well-spoken and very expressive about the value of women athletics.
And her soccer … Oh my gosh, did Rapinoe step up under pressure.
SA: What does the USA winning two straight World Cups and four out of the eight mean for you?
ANSON DORRANCE: The United States women's national team has to be written about right now as dynastic because this is hard to do.
The other thing that's cool, is this is the world's game that we're dominating, and that's an additional statement. I think it’s a statement certainly about the liberation of women in the United States. I think it's a very positive statement about Title IX. I think it's an incredible statement about the wonderful things that athletics can do when we give our girls and young women a chance to participate.SA: We’ve been hearing for a long time that the rest of the world is catching up to the USA in women’s soccer. But I thought the USA was significantly better than the competition in France. Even in the final, it never looked like the Dutch had much of a chance and I also thought U.S. players were generally better technically. What do you think?
ANSON DORRANCE: I think you're absolutely correct. When we talk about the rest of the world catching up, I don't think we address enough that we're also getting better, and we are.
The thing that was most impressive about our team is our depth. You couldn't take any other team in that World Cup, have them lose their best player, and not miss them in the least. How can you lose your Golden Ball, Golden Boot player and not miss a beat when Christen Press replaced Rapinoe?
Not only was our first team extraordinary but the people off bench were pretty extraordinary too. It’s not just the first team that was good and effective and competitive and technical and tactical – and of course ruthless in the attacking third -- it was the players on the entire roster.
So for me it was a validation that, yeah, the rest of the world is getting better, but guess what, we're not sitting on our palms. We're getting better too. We are better technically than where we were even after the 2015 championship. We are better tactically than when we were as 2015 champions.
Yes, the world is getting better, but we're getting better as well.
SA: Going to something we touched on in our pre-World Cup interview: U.S. Soccer steering girls and women’s soccer in the USA toward a European model. Being the best women’s soccer nation in the world for so long, it seems odd that our Federation is looking abroad for a model.
ANSON DORRANCE: I've always said the men's game is the university for the women's game and I still believe that. But I still think the platforms we have for women's development are still going to be a little bit different than the men's-slash-European model.
What we all have to accept is that there a thousand ways we can continue to improve. Let's never lose sight of that. Let's never develop an arrogance that what we're doing is always going to be absolutely the best. But you're right, right now, when you look at the record, it has been the best.
Yes, let's continue looking for ways to make us better. Yes, the Europeans have huge edge when a 16-year-old girl can now play in a professional environment with the top players in the Champions League in England or in the top divisions in Sweden or Germany and in Spain. Yes, in Italy we can certainly see their huge improvement.
There are advantages in that. But let's not lose sight of our own advantages. Let's figure out solutions to help our 16-year-old girls play up. Because right now we have so many rules preventing girls from playing up or playing with or against boys at that level. So let's solve these problems in our own way, let's not completely jump yet to that European model until it demonstrates it completely destroys us. Because as of right now, you and I both agree it hasn't.
And I don't want us to lose what the collegiate platform gives us.
SA: What did you see at this World Cup that demonstrated the attributes of the American college game?
ANSON DORRANCE: When England played the Swedes, its starting center back had to sit out because of a double-yellow suspension.
So, they had to bring in another center back. What was interesting, even a very good team like England, that has a fantastic pro league in the Women’s Super League, when they sub, it was like falling off the edge of a cliff in terms of the quality between some of their first-line players and their second. That shows the enormous differences and what’s so good about the American model.
What's really good about the American model is the number of kids who are fighting to play in college and get college scholarships, and the quality of so many college coaches, and the quality of their facilities and support systems.
Obviously, the support system thing I'm more conscious of now because more of my kids are coming back now and telling me horror stories, that God forbid if they injured in a foreign country. The treatment they get is nowhere near the treatment they got at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Of course, sometimes we take for granted the infrastructure that surrounds our wonderful universities, like our facilities, but also like our sports medicine departments and our trainers and orthopedic surgeons and the whole structure around trying to keep our girls healthy and playing.
SA: For whatever growth there may be in women’s pro soccer, it’s very hard for me to imagine an American system that doesn’t need to be complemented by the college game …
ANSON DORRANCE: Let's not throw away the most positive parts of our system right now. Are there things that we can do that we can steal from Europe and the men's model, to make us even better? Yes, there are. But let's not throw away what we have. And what we have are 320 Division I teams with, in effect, professional coaches. They do this for a living. They're continuing to study and work on their craft and getting better and better.
If you multiply that by 30, you can see the extraordinary number of players we’re training on a consistent level from the ages of 17 to 22, who now have an opportunity with this background and training and very good competitive level to now jump into a league [NWSL] that's very good top to bottom relative to [foreign pro] leagues. Because most leagues, the teams at the top are extraordinary and the teams at the bottom they beat like a drum. That's not the case in the NWSL. Across the board, the NWSL is a much more competitive league, top to bottom.
I want to give Sunil Gulati full credit for that. I don't want us to forget that after two failed leagues he came up with a model that made all the difference in the world and that has helped our players. I think Sunil Gulati has his fingerprints all over that world championship. So, we have to give credit to our soccer leadership and we should certainly give him credit.
SA: In my interview with Mirelle van Rijbroek, U.S. Soccer's Director of Talent Identification-Girls, in which she said, “to play and compete on the elite international level the college program is not enough anymore,” she cited the collegiate season as being too short, with too many games.
ANSON DORRANCE: Her criticism is a legitimate one. That's why the men are fighting for a [split] fall and spring season, and why the women have to jump in with the men and we have to convince our college leadership to have that as a model. And I think that will correct one of the issues and points that she made that I thought were excellent.
But even with this hybrid, this not entirely positive model of the collegiate level, it's shocking how many elite players we prepare who are sent into the national team and are ready to play at an international level.
We can go through the history of all these great players, who while they were playing in college, were also playing for the United States winning gold medals, winning world championships. Let's not throw away that model yet.
Let's make it an even better model and add some additional pieces.
SA: The detractors of the women’s college game continually cite the limits of the “three-month season.” But elite women’s college players don’t just play three months of soccer, do they?
ANSON DORRANCE: No, but that's the straw man that someone will set up when they're trying to basically criticize the collegiate platform.
Our kids play year-round. We have a fall season, which obviously is packed with games, but we also have a spring season.
Heck, this last spring season, we tied the Washington Spirit. So how bad can our spring be when a college team drives up to Northern Virginia and ties the Washington Spirit, which is in the top half of the NWSL standings?
The spring season for me is a wonderful season. Do we have as many games in the spring as in the fall season? No, but you cannot completely dismiss what we do in the spring. In my opinion, our kids improve the most technically and tactically in the spring because that's all we work on. We don't have that many matches, so we're not always tapering into games.
The spring season is legitimate player development. A practice environment where you get maximum touches with wonderful ideas on what we’re going to do to improve technically and, also tactically.
So let’s not dismiss even the current model, which is not a perfect model, because we work very hard to make sure our winter and spring is a very effective player development model. Ask these pro teams we play against. We scrimmage the Carolina Courage, the team that beat Lyon.
The college season format is not ideal, but it’s more than a three-month season.
SA: And the very elite college players also spend time in U-20, U-23 and women’s national team camps, and play international games, right?
ANSON DORRANCE: Correct. And in the summer, you're allowed five kids on a professional roster, so what we do with our five best players is they train with the Courage. And if one of our kids is near the Washington Spirit, she trains with the Spirit.SA: Do you have an example of a piece that would be beneficial to add to the American soccer model?
ANSON DORRANCE: The piece I would like to add immediately is futsal. The United States is built for futsal. Every elementary school, every middle school, every high school has a gymnasium.
I'm working a soccer team camp, and I'm out there this morning, looking at this team scrimmaging. I think holy cow do they have an amazing polish. I walked over to the coach. I was really impressed. What are you doing in training? And he described all the different things he's doing. And he says, by the way, we have a volunteer day on Monday where they play pickup futsal after a little technical work. And I say, that’s it.
And I'm seeing so many of my top recruits right now with a futsal background.
So there are additional things we can add to an already very good player development model, and I think futsal is another piece we should adopt. And the facilities have already been built. Not just the gymnasiums. The tennis court is another wonderful futsal facility and there are empty tennis courts all over this country where you could develop a futsal environment.
All of us should have a combination 11-v-11 plus futsal model for our youth, but we have always done it in college.
Ask Mia. Ask Kristine Lilly. Ask Cindy Parlow. They all played futsal with us basically all winter and spring and I think it’s fabulous piece we can add to our landscape to stay on top of the world.
SA: Back to the World Cup, anything else significant about the USA’s success?
ANSON DORRANCE: The U.S. support system around their team is so professional and the quality of people is so extraordinary. People like Dawn Scott, a hidden name around the U.S. national team structure. There's an absolutely brilliant woman who works behind the scenes, will never really get any fame for the service she does, but ask the players about her. She's doing their fitness platform. She's helping them come back from injury.
Another thing I saw, and obviously you'd have to be in the inner circle to get a better description of this, because I'm trying to look at this through the screen and watching the reaction of the players. But the chemistry was amazing. They did play for each other. It's clear they loved each other. And it was clear they supported each other. As all of us know, that's another very important alchemy if you want to have a successful run.