- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BOSTON -- Midway through the second half of Thursday's game against Boston College, North Carolina assistant coach Bill Palladino let loose with a frustrated question as redundant to previous generations of Tar Heels as the cautionary warning on fast-food coffee cups.
"Will somebody take a shot?" Palladino yelled from the bench as the current Tar Heels squandered yet another series of passes without testing the Boston College keeper.
Midfielder Allie Long soon obliged, cracking a liner from near the bench that slipped several yards wide of the Boston College goal but drew a half-amused, half-exasperated "thank you" from Palladino. And while North Carolina eventually left Massachusetts happy after a 1-0 double-overtime conference road win, it was fitting that the winner came on a well-struck ball from freshman Megan Klingenberg that looked suspiciously like an attempted cross before it slipped inside the far post.
With just over three weeks until the start of the NCAA Tournament, the defending champion looks like just one of perhaps a dozen title hopefuls, in large part because the Tar Heels don't look like a typical North Carolina team on the attack.
"We're trying to figure out a way for this team to score occasionally," Tar Heels coach Anson Dorrance said. "We've never had such a low-scoring team in our history. And we've never had a team that shot so rarely. There were three or four opportunities in the first half [against Boston College] where previous generations of players wouldn't have passed up those chances. So we're just sort of perplexed [with] what's going on with our offense."
Trying times are a relative thing for the women's soccer program at North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 13-3-0 on the season, own sole possession of first place in the ACC and are likely to reclaim a spot in the NSCAA top 10 after following up the win against Boston College with a 4-1 win at Virginia Tech on Sunday that represented the team's best offensive output in exactly one month. And while losses to South Carolina, William and Mary and Miami -- all unranked in last week's poll -- sent shock waves through college soccer, the only other NCAA season that included as many as three losses for UNC ended with a national championship in 2000 (the NCAA held its first Division I women's soccer championship in 1982 -- and the winner, of course, was North Carolina).
Overall, the Tar Heels have won 18 national titles, all under Dorrance, including nine straight from 1986-94.
So, given such a successful history, nobody (least of all Dorrance) is in panic mode over this team's goal-scoring struggles, and nobody is planning to book events to fill Fetzer Field in late November. But pleas like the one Palladino made from the sideline are still in order for a team struggling to average even two goals a game.
"The whole system is predicated on pressure," Dorrance said of the connection between his high-risk defense and the attack. "But the system is also predicated on the one-v-one artists, because we set up our system so we have a lot of one-v-one isolations. The flank midfielders are isolated one-v-one; our front-runners, playing with three, having a lot of occasions to be isolated one-v-one."
From April Heinrichs to Mia Hamm and on through Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly, not to mention the dozens of other All-Americans, the Tar Heels have always had "artists" with both the mind-set to attack those situations and the skill to create chances out of them.
Sophomores Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira demonstrated plenty of skill in playing key postseason roles as freshmen last fall, but their efforts to assert their personalities on the field this season without the protection of departed seniors O'Reilly and Libby Guess have in some ways mirrored the team's overall search for identity.
Heath looked dominant at times against Boston College, especially in a first half in which the Tar Heels controlled the flow of the game; she attacked almost at will down the flank against defenders unable to match either her speed or her ball skills and served at least one cross that should have been finished. She followed up that performance with her second goal of the season in Sunday's game against Virginia Tech, but her team-high five assists say more about her role in UNC's attack.
"We're really happy with what Tobin's been doing," Dorrance said. "Ever since the William and Mary game, she's starting to do everything we've asked. We want her to be a threat from the flank, a scoring threat and an assisting threat, and we've made recommendations to her that she's followed to the letter."
Despite leading the team with nine goals this season and putting together a highlight reel of tricks and ball control that few other players could match in a career, Nogueira didn't receive quite the same glowing reviews. After a preseason scrimmage against Notre Dame, Dorrance said the talented sophomore needed to step up her intensity. And while he also spoke of the dangers of putting too much pressure too soon on someone as young as Nogueira, the message after the Boston College game was much the same.
"Nogueira is still finding her personality," Dorrance said. "Right now, she still plays soccer; she doesn't compete at it. And as a soccer player, she's an extraordinary one, but what we're hoping for her to realize eventually is for her to reach her potential, she's got to be a competitor. But as a result, because she's such an extraordinary player, you see some of the magic. So you'll see the stuff periodically in her game that is just absolutely majestic. But she lacks that killer instinct that I think can take her to a level where very few players can go."
A third player in the middle of the search for goals, literally in her case, is midfielder Yael Averbuch. Although less of a one-on-one weapon than the flank players or forwards, Averbuch led the team in both goals and shots last season -- taking 61 more shots than even O'Reilly. She's on pace to lead in the latter again this season, but even that is a telling statistic considering she's also on pace to average almost a shot per game less than last season. Few players in the college game have better range than the junior, but in both the hesitation to fire away and a missed opportunity on a ball in front that she sent directly at Boston College keeper Sarah Buonomo, she showed signs in one game of a trend evident all season.
"Yael, compared to last year, just isn't scoring like she did," Dorrance said. "She had a wonderful chance to finish one and last year that would have been in the back of the net, but this year, for some reason, she just [had] maybe a little bit of a loss of confidence. Maybe it's so hard to live up to her glory of last year. For her, she had such a fabulous sophomore year, we would call this year, her junior year, her sophomore scoring slump. She was our leading goal scorer last year, and that was with a roster with Heather O'Reilly on it and Libby Guess, two of the finest attacking players we've ever had at UNC."
Whether the Tar Heels ultimately miss out on the College Cup or win another championship, their fate certainly doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of Heath, Nogueira and Averbuch. Dorrance was quick to praise Klingenberg's play in the game against Boston College, and between her development and Nikki Washington, Whitney Engen and Jamie Gilbert, other players are capable of finishing chances. And the coach was equally quick to suggest the entire roster wasn't working consistently hard enough on defense to execute his high-pressure 3-4-3 up to North Carolina standards.
But it won't hurt if three of the most dynamic offensive talents in the college game hit their stride and set the pace for Carolina's attack. It's at least worth a shot.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
With the NCAA Tournament looming, defending champ North Carolina has the talent to win consecutive titles. What the Heels are missing, however, is the goal.