As Anson Dorrance watched the U.S. play New Zealand in the first game of the 2016 Olympics, it looked awful familiar to him.
“New Zealand probably looked at the Australian template from the last World Cup,” says Dorrance, the head coach of 21-time NCAA champion University of North Carolina. “The most difficult game for us in the World Cup run last year was the opener against Australia. If you look at that opening game, Australia dominated us in the first half.
“Australia pressed us and made it difficult for us to play,” adds Dorrance. “The typical Aussie is a very tough, hard-nosed kid who has no issue going in hard on 50-50 balls. They made 50-50 balls a very painful experience for us. They made coming out of the back a very difficult prospect for us. I think New Zealand used that as a road map as to how they were going to play against us.”
New Zealand, Dorrance points out, made Wednesday’s game a physical test for the U.S., trying to take away any time, space and composure the more talented Americans could exploit.
“I was impressed with New Zealand’s commitment to aggressive defending, and I thought we handled that style very well,” says Dorrance who coached the USA to the 1991 World Cup title. “I saw a lot more good things than I did bad. It was a nice step up from the way we started the World Cup.”
Dorrance understands the fickle nature of soccer and says to succeed, teams not only have to have a bit of good luck, but also the absence of bad luck.
“There are so many factors in soccer that can help a team playing poorly win and (a) team playing well lose,” he says. “A lot of times, when we critique a game, we build our case from the game’s result. That’s unfortunate. I think a good way to look at a game is to take out the game’s margin.
“So, let’s take out the two U.S. goals and see if we deserved to win it. We did. We sat in their end. There were a lot of other chances created. The chances created by New Zealand weren’t like ours. Their shots were from 20-25 yards away. Our shots were from inside the box. We can go on and on. There were a lot of very, very good things.”
Long Road to Rio
A key factor in not only the New Zealand win but in games coming up is the composure of U.S. players on the ball and under pressure. One of the most composed was the 28-year-old newcomer playing in her first major international event.
“Obviously, the Allie Long story is fabulous,” says Dorrance, who coached Long at UNC. “Here’s someone who never gave up on her dream. So many of us in life have these dreams and we quit on them too early. She’s always had this as a dream and never gave up on it. I loved watching her fight and fight and fight to get there.”
When Long got her chance, she didn’t waste it. She’s played in seven games in 2016, getting six starts. But it was the July 9 game against South Africa Dorrance believes convinced head coach Jill Ellis to take her to Olympics.
“In in the last four to six minutes of that game, the game where Jill was going to make her final decision, Allie is making sprint after sprint after sprint, and these are 40-yard sprints, to get into the attacking box to try to score a goal or create a goal,” says Dorrance.
“I’m sure Jill saw the same things I saw, and she said, ‘You know what? I’m going to invest in this kid.’ It was great to see her make the roster and then to see her start was tremendous. I was just very proud of her. I don’t know how many kids that has happened to, and I know it has happened to none who are in their late 20s.”
In her Olympic debut, Long, starting alongside Morgan Brian at holding center mid with Carli Lloyd in front of her, played with composure and strength that negated New Zealand’s hard-nosed approach.
“Her skill set is very good, but along with that skill set is tremendous composure because she is not afraid to get hit,” says Dorrance “What she did very well was, even in the chaos of that game where she was playing in this firestorm in midfield, is she has the strength and composure to keep possession.
“She’s not Casper Milquetoast,” Dorrance adds referring to the old comic strip character who was described as one who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick. “She’s hard. Her dad’s a rugby player and there are no shrinking violets in rugby. So when her dad went to see her play, one thing he took for granted was his kid was not going to shy away, and she doesn’t.”
Two Sides of France
Dorrance, one of the great motivators of all time, was very interested in some comments made in the media before the France-Colombia game Wednesday. Bruno Bini coached France to fourth place finishes in the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. Now he coaches China. Bini was recently asked to compare China and France, who the USA plays on Saturday.
“If I compare the Chinese team to the French team,” Bini told Reuters earlier this week, “Chinese women work harder and they complain much less.”
“He couldn’t have made a more motivational statement for the French team,” says Dorrance, noting that France posted an impressive 4-0 win over Colombia. “I’m sure it got back to France. They played out of their minds. The question is, does that wear off for the U.S. game because if it doesn’t the U.S. is in for a helluva challenge against France.”
In recent history, the French, according to Dorrance, are the greatest under-achievers in major tournaments. Japan, he says, are the biggest over-achievers.
“France, all of us believe, that if they play well they can win almost any event,” Dorrance explains. “That’s where the French are right now. Then invariably, their psychological dimension deserts them, and they go into this surrender mode that completely compromises their talent level and their potential.”
The question now is will France continue on its recent self-destructive path?
“In this next game, they get to decide who they are,” Dorrance says. “Are they the classic underachieving team their former coach is alluding to, or do the French players get together and decide they are tired of under-achieving.
“Which team will we see against the U.S.?”
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, click here
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