Commentary

Pressure system earns UNC title again

Tar Heels blank Stanford to repeat as women's soccer champions

Updated: December 6, 2009, 7:11 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The pressure of the moment didn't get to Stanford in Sunday's national championship match. The pressure applied by North Carolina did for just long enough to prolong the most prolific dynasty in women's college athletics.

And a cold, damp and otherwise dreary afternoon in Texas offered glimpses of both a sport that is evolving at an accelerated pace, and the seeming permanence of a program whose success is the standard against which that change is measured.

[+] EnlargeCasey Nogueira
AP Photo/Bob LeveyCasey Nogueira, right, sent the perfect cross to Jessica McDonald, left, for the only score UNC needed Sunday.

Looking like so many of the North Carolina teams that won the 20 national titles that preceded Sunday's triumph, the Tar Heels smothered the Cardinal in their 1-0 victory, taking a lead on Jessica McDonald's third-minute goal and dominating possession for the entire first half.

Pressure has always been North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance's greatest weapon, using three forwards to chase and disrupt play in an opponent's own half of the field and asking three defenders to hold a high line, shortening the field but leaving tracts of grass between them and a goalkeeper -- in this case, Ashlyn Harris. And on this day, on a wet field in raw conditions, even Stanford's trademark combination play bogged down.

"North Carolina does a great job pressuring and swarming the ball," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said of his team's slow start. "And it's easy to talk about, as a coach, what you need to do, but it's difficult in there. Especially with the slick conditions, I think it was hard for us to get in a rhythm and really play our type of soccer.

"It wasn't a fantastic game for us; we can play better, I think. But you've got to give Carolina a lot of credit. They put you under pressure and make it difficult for you to get in a rhythm."

By the end of the first half, the Tar Heels had taken 10 shots to two for Stanford and seven corners to none for Stanford. Cardinal outside backs Ali Riley and Rachel Quon, staples of the team's attack all season, rarely made it beyond midfield. All-Americans Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press saw only a handful of touches in the attacking third.

"Obviously we have a unique style and we try to bring that to bear against every team we play," Dorrance said. "And so our philosophy isn't horribly profound; it's just basically a work ethic. Our team doesn't put up with any divas. If you're going to be on the field for the Tar Heels, you're going to put your hard hat on and you're going to go to work; you're going to sprint to close down people; you're going to make it difficult for the other team to play any kind of game."

North Carolina teams have been doing that for as long as Dorrance has been in Chapel Hill, since 1979. Playing the Tar Heels leaves opponents with half a beat less time to do anything -- spot a target, make a run, take a shot. For years, even after regaining their senses after the first proverbial punch, few teams had the talent or the depth to counter. But as the second half unfolded Sunday, Stanford showed how much times are changing.

[+] EnlargeWhitney Engen
AP Photo/Bob LeveyWhitney Engen's play earned her the honor of the NCAA tournament's most outstanding defensive player.

With their first-half trepidation replaced by the immediacy of the moment, the Cardinal pushed back as the Tar Heels tired. There were some tactical adjustments -- freshman reserve Courtney Verloo, who had an apparent first-half goal waved off on an offside call, started the second half and played well. But more than anything, the Cardinal picked up their pace, completing passes and stretching the field from side to side.

They punched back at college soccer's bully, but North Carolina's back line stood its ground.

The Tar Heels are more than simply a collection of recruiting gems. The program's success does beget the luxury of picking and choosing from the best of the best, but for every Casey Nogueira or Ashlyn Harris, names known in the soccer community long before they reached Chapel Hill, there is a Whitney Engen or Kristi Eveland.

A lightly recruited player out of California four years ago, Engen became, in Dorrance's estimation, the effective soul of this team. A forward her first two seasons, she moved seamlessly two seasons ago to the middle of the back line, where she started Sunday alongside Eveland, an afterthought out of Texas in that same epic recruiting class four years ago.

And as the Cardinal closed in, they teamed with Carolina junior Rachel Givan to stymie possession after possession. There is risk built into playing with three defenders, especially against a team with as many gifted attacking players as Stanford. And things might have turned out differently if not for Kelley O'Hara's ejection after a second yellow card (for a foul committed against Engen as she cleared another Cardinal foray out of danger) or the offside flag that waved off Christen Press' blast with six minutes to play.

But it always seems North Carolina's opponents are left asking what-if questions.

"Coming into the match, I had a lot of respect for their front line, and I think Rachel and Kristi did as well," Engen said. "But I think we also knew that in order for the system as a whole to work for us, we had to trust in the system. And that's drawing a high line. We don't change our system for anybody. We had that respect in the back of our minds, but at the same time, we know that pretty much in order to make everything function, to play the game we want to play, we have to trust in our line."

Stanford's second half showed how remarkable it is for this North Carolina senior class to leave with three championships in four seasons. The road to that glory is growing longer and longer -- literally in a tournament that once required just three wins out of a champion, and figuratively in a landscape where the Tar Heels could lose to a Miami team this season that didn't even make the NCAA tournament. But as long as Dorrance is around, the Tar Heels will keep fitting pieces into a system yet to be solved.

[+] EnlargeStanford
AP Photo/Bob LeveyThough Stanford fought hard in the second half Sunday, the Cardinal couldn't overcome their first-half deficit.

"I think the teams that we play against, the players are getting better and better, and I think the coaches are too," Dorrance said. "But there's something interesting about pressure in our game. Mike Tyson has a great statement; he says everyone has a plan until the first punch.

"So if you're looking at our system, and you're looking at it on paper, it's very easy to beat. Knock it over the top, run onto it, etc.; hold it in the back because we've only got three forwards pressurizing four backs. There are all these different ways to solve it on paper. But there's a completely different issue when you're out there trying to play against it, and we're forcing you to play at a speed you're not comfortable with."

Two years in a row an unbeaten and untied challenger squared off against North Carolina in the championship match. Two years in a row, the Tar Heels ensured they remained the only program ever to finish a season unbeaten and untied.

The more things change, the harder it is for them to stay the same. But for at least one more year, Dorrance's dynasty made the season's final image an entirely familiar one.

The system still works.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. For the complete 2009 NCAA women's soccer tournament results, click here.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.