Anson Dorrance, who coached the USA to the title of the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, has coached the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for more than four decades, winning 21 NCAA Division I titles and sending a stream of players into the U.S. women's national team program. In 2020-21, in a season split because of COVID, the Tar Heels reached the ACC final in the fall and, after six starters moved on to play professionally in England and the NWSL, reached the College Cup, falling to eventual champion Santa Clara in the semifinals.
SOCCER AMERICA: It took a lot of safety protocol and rescheduling to pull off the previous NCAA Division I season. Do you expect a normal season despite the latest COVID surge?ANSON DORRANCE: We have to basically understand how we can all stay safe -- get vaccinated. It's not complex. If you can have your team with 100% vaccinations, your staff with 100% percent vaccinations, you're taking a wonderful step forward to not only protect your team, but to protect the teams you're playing against. You have to start with that.
What I don't like to hear is people waffling about whether or not everybody should be vaccinated because the political pressure to declare which side of that line they're on is so overwhelming that even people with high IQs struggle to say that everyone should be vaccinated. Yes, everyone should be vaccinated. And if you want to play on my team, you have to get vaccinated. If you're not vaccinated, you're not on the team.
My wife is immunosuppressed. If I bring something home, she dies. This for me is not a complex, moral debate about freedom. This is about life or death. This is a simple choice for me. I am not going to pretend to pontificate on American freedoms and start screaming about our constitutional freedoms. Life and death has to trump arrogant posturing about freedom. Because I don't think you should have the freedom to kill someone. Basically if you're not vaccinated, I think you're making a statement that you have freedom of killing anyone when you like. I just disagree with that and I wish more people would be aggressive with this because it's so simple for me. I do not want to bring something home and see M'Liss suffer from this.
I know if you're vaccinated, you can still pick this thing up. But here's what I know from the data, because I follow this everyday, because I love my wife: If someone does get this while vaccinated, it's basically less aggressive. If it's required, the hospital stay is less severe. So let's do this for ourselves, let's do this for the people we love who are around us, let's do this for our communities.
SA: I agree absolutely. And it's frustrating that so many refuse to wear masks ...
ANSON DORRANCE: There was an editorial in our local paper headlined, “Are you willing to risk your children now, anti-maskers?" Here is the last paragraph: “Like it or not, our government tells parents rather regularly how we should keep our children safe [see car seats, for starters]. Masks may be a nuisance, but they also save lives. 'Freedom' protesters have a choice to make: abandon your principles for your children, or abandon your children for your principles."
We can navigate this. But we can navigate it even better.
SA: One thing we witnessed during the pandemic, is that sports showed how strict protocol can succceed ...
ANSON DORRANCE: I want to give credit to my chancellor and my athletic director and all of our medical staff here at UNC -- for the fact that we got to play with basically the rest of our last year closed down. But I also want to congratulate the leadership in the NWSL for the extraordinary success of the Challenge Cup last year. That was who led it at the pro-level. They closed the bubble. Everyone stayed safe. That's thanks to their their leadership, and certainly the individual players who sacrificed because they wanted to continue to play this extraordinary game. ... And of course my wife and I took my trainer [Brandi Schwane] out to dinner, with her wonderful husband, Nick, for keeping us safe, because holy cow was she in a stressful position.
Anson Dorrance with UNC alum Lucy Bronze, who went on to play pro in her native England, for French powerhouse Lyon, and made her Olympic debut for Great Britain at the Games in Japan.
SA: We just watched the USA disappoint in the Olympic Games, settling for a bronze medal as two-time defending World Cup champion. Coach Vlatko Andonovski's squad's average age was about 30. The 21-year-old Catarina Macario saw action during Olympic prep games and made the squad as one of the alternates (later deemed eligible to play by a change of Olympic regulations), but otherwise fans watching the USWNT play since their 2019 World Cup triumph under Coach Jill Ellis have not seen much of younger players set to replace the veterans. As someone very familiar with the nationwide player pool, how would you rate the outlook for the USA heading toward the 2023 World Cup?
ANSON DORRANCE: I think we're fine. I think there's a next generation waiting for a Vlatko. I can't declare we're going to be favorites until I see what happens in the next year or two. For me to predict right out of the gate, after we weren't even in the gold-medal game, would be presumptuous. I'm not going to blue sky it until we see some of this, but in my opinion, there's some extraordinary talent out there that Vlatko is going to have at his disposal. And I think it's going to be an exciting team that will be difficult to match up with. I think the future is bright for the United States.
SA: Regarding U.S. Soccer's roadmap to keeping the USA atop women's soccer world, when we spoke two years ago you were concerned about it using the European "male model" for player development and encouraging young players to skip college to go pro early. Let's revisit that ...
ANSON DORRANCE: We know the men's and women's departments work together in Chicago [the U.S. Soccer headquarters]. The men's game is the university for the women's games, and of course we look to the men's game to be inspired by, to learn from to get to a higher level. But I think there's an incredible pressure for them to have us flip to the European model as fast as possible. But in my opinion, the American college is still an excellent platform for the evolution of our elite players. So many of our college kids go right from college into the [women's] national team environment and succeed.
I genuinely feel like the American colleges have done a remarkable job putting us in a position to compete internationally. One piece that separates us from the rest of the world of women's soccer is the fact that the American college game is the perfect conduit for player development in the 17 to 21 age group.
Did a European team win the Olympics? Did a South American or Asian team win the Olympics? The gold medalists were another collection of kids whose primary player development platform was using the American college game before they went and signed pro contracts. Almost every one of those kids on the Canadian team went to an American college.
SA: I do believe it's important to consider the difference between men's and women's college soccer, that the gap between the women's college game and women's pro soccer isn't as profound as between men's college soccer and men's pro soccer ...
ANSON DORRANCE: I agree. Obviously there are girls in other countries who reach the promised land after going pro at an early age, but before we throw the baby out with the bath water, let's not undermine this incredible platform that we have that basically protects our women while we're helping develop them. I continually think about the book, "Every Boy's Dream," which researched the churn in English soccer. I don't want to have an acceptable level of churn. I want to get it right. So yes, if we drive our kids to the pro leagues, let's make sure that young woman is emotionally equipped to make this transition and is ready to step on the field with the pros. But there are exceptions to the rule about going straight to the pros before college.
SA: Such as ..
ANSON DORRANCE: I'm watching Trinity Rodman [age 19] play right now [for the NWSL's Washington Spirit], and I'm impressed. I'm looking at this thinking, yup, this can happen, but I don't want that to be the rule, because as any physiologist will tell you, we all mature at different speeds, different rates. There are exceptions. Lindsey Horan is a great example of the success of someone who signed professionally instead of going to college. And obviously I'm very close to her. She signed with me for UNC out of high school, but then after she signed, she went to go pro in France. With the amount of money she was paid to go pro in France, I completely supported her. I embraced her decision and she and I have become good friends, even though she's never played for me.
So I think there are exceptions to that rule about going to the American college. But there are already cautionary tales. I'm certainly not going to mention any names. And currently few clubs are paying enough to make it worthwhile to skip college and I think very few professional clubs are set up for helping a kid navigate the first two or three or four years of a new professional life.
SA: As you're preparing for the fall season, how different do you expect this coming college season to be because of the pandemic's effect, for example, on recruiting?
ANSON DORRANCE: Of course, it changed. We couldn't go out and recruit. Now we can and now we can bring kids in, so we're more or less back to normal. But for that last year, of course, it was completely different. I have to give a full credit my assistant, Damon Nahas, because we had an ID camp in February  before everything was closed down with the pandemic. We managed to get all kinds of wonderful commitments even into 2023, before it was closed down. And I have to give him full credit. We have a wonderful class that just arrived, got a big class the next year, and for the following year. So we're in great shape all the way through 2023.
SA: The other big difference in the wake of the COVID-affected season will be that last season's seniors can be returning because they were granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA.
ANSON DORRANCE: We didn't do that at UNC. So we'll be a young team playing against older, veteran teams. Every game we play is going to be a fantastic challenge, which of course I have no issue with because my favorite aspect of the collegiate game is player development.
SA: Another major change in the American landscape occurred when U.S. Soccer ended its Development Academy in April 2020. That put an end to the ECNL's battle with the DA for the nation's elite clubs. But now we have Girls Academy. How do you see this new competion between youth soccer governing bodies unfolding?
ANSON DORRANCE: I appreciate the question, Mike. Obviously you understand my opinions on the DA. I thought there were so many bad things about their rollout and their rules, et cetera. I don't have a position on the leagues now.
What I liked about the ECNL is that they basically said, bring it on, we'll compete with any league. And that's the attitude they have. It's also the attitude that the Girls Academy has, and that the other leagues have that are out there. And I have no issue with any of that. I think that's healthy.
SA: But competing youth soccer organizations -- turf wars, if you will -- don't make it easy on parents and players trying to figure out what path to take ...
ANSON DORRANCE: I'm still asked all the time, where should I send my kids? And my answers are the same right now as they were five years ago or even three years ago when we were at the peak of the animosity between the rule structure of the Development Academy and their war against the ECNL.
All I tell parents now is the same thing I told them years ago: Pick the best coach. The coach who will have your daughter's human and soccer development as a priority. And that should be the way you make your choices. And so I'm not married to any league. Obviously, I love the ECNL and what they've done. But also Lesle Gallimore [Girls Academy commissioner], what's she's trying to do for the Girls Academy. Lesle's is a fantastic leader. I'm sure she's going to do the right thing. What I think is happening right now is we've got a lot of fine leaders running the leagues that I know of. Let's make it a competition.
One of the reasons I think our kids leave college and are prepared for the high level is because of the competition. I'm not one of these people who thinks we should destroy competition in any way. So yes, let the leagues compete. They'll all come up with their ideas on what's good about their particular environment. And I think competing with each other is going to be very healthy and very positive.
Photos by Jeffrey A. Camarati courtesy of UNC Athletics.