First Women’s World Cup Winning Coach, Anson Dorrance Still Chasing History

First Women’s World Cup Winning Coach, Anson Dorrance Still Chasing History

As he enters his 43rd year as coach of North Carolina’s women soccer team, Anson Dorrance continues to break records. Last month, he registered his 900th win with the Tar Heels, a NCAA record and the 70-year old is on course to break the world record for the longest managerial reign in soccer history.

First taking the job when the program was founded in September 1979, Dorrance, the only coach in North Carolina’s history, has now held the role for a staggering 42 years and two months. Only two soccer coaches in the world have held a continuous role for longer. Willey Maley managed Glasgow Celtic for 42 years and five months from 1897 and Fred Everiss led West Bromwich Albion for 45 years and nine months between 1902 and 1948. Everiss’ reign was interrupted for six years due to the Second World War so Dorrance, the winner of 21 NCCA women’s soccer championships, could very soon justifiably call himself the longest-serving coach in the entire history of the game.

Speaking to me this week, Dorrance told me he is not motivated by making history but by his continued zest for coaching. “I’m not interested in breaking world records, I’m just interested in enjoying my life and right now I’m enjoying the heck out of coaching, so I’m certainly not putting up any sort of barriers based on some arbitrary number. I love going to practice every day, I love working with the staff I’ve got. I’m excited about the future”.

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai), the son of an oil executive, Dorrance spent the first five years of his life in India, moving to Calcutta when he was three. With his father transferred every three years, Dorrance later moved to Nairobi, Kenya before first being introduced to soccer during recess at his Catholic school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He credits his unique coaching perspective to his willingness to adapt to any circumstances and his unquenchable competitiveness.

For all his many achievements in North Carolina, Dorrance’s will forever be remembered around the world as the winning coach of the first Women’s World Cup held in China 30 years ago this month. In 1986, he took over a United States women’s national team with no reputation in the game and no discernible playing style. Five years later, they were world champions, creating a blueprint for all the players that followed in what would become the most successful national team in the history of the women’s game.

Playing a 3-4-3 formation to counter the rigid lines of the 4-4-2 preferred by most established European nations, Dorrance’s high-pressing style became all the rage after being utilized by the great men’s European teams from AC Milan and FC Barcelona. However, Dorrance denies being influenced by anyone but himself. “I wanted to structure my team environment in soccer to basically conform to who I was. I am an in-your-face competitor. I want to be in your face as soon as you win the ball. I’m going to go after you to grab you by the throat and squeeze the air out of you. I don’t want you to breathe.”

“Here’s what I know – I’m going to be a lot fitter than you are, I’m going to be a lot tougher than you are. I want there to be as much physical confrontation on your 120 yard route towards my penalty area and I’m going to make you suffer in every stage. This is who I was. I didn’t follow the world game back in the day. I followed my own mentality and that mentality was extraordinarily aggressive. We pressed, not because I saw some team in Europe pressing. I knew if I got the ball, the last thing I wanted was someone making it hard for me. So I thought, that’s the way we’re going to play, we’re going to make it hard for them”.

Lacking the budget to gather his players for regular training camps, Dorrance instead gave them individual regimes which honed their ability to play one-on-one and ensured they would go to the first World Cup tournament as the fittest team in the competition. “We didn’t have a professional league at the time. Since we weren’t going to have a lot of camps, since we weren’t at that time a federation that was going to spend a lot of money investing in their women’s soccer, we knew the only way we were going to survive was to pick players who were capable of training on their own. We didn’t have enough money to bring these kids in to have established training camps where we could play this incredibly sophisticated possession game. We didn’t have that capability. Here’s our capability – we were going to be fit, we were going to be athletic and boy were we going to be good one-on-one. We were going to press for the entire match, regardless of the fact that the games (at the World Cup) were every two days. Everyone thought this was insane.”

The United States’ first game was against the traditional power of Sweden, European champions in 1984. However the Scandinavians were not as well prepared for the culture shock of playing in China in 1991. Having previously organized matches in the country, the United States knew what to expect, particularly in terms of the local food. “One of the reasons we won the World Cup was I took my brother and his partner in the restaurant business to be our chefs in China”, Dorrance reveals. “We brought our chefs because our girls hated the local cuisine.”

Staying in the same White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, the Swedish players asked if they could have some of the American pasta rations on the eve of their encounter against one another. “The Swedes basically ate our pasta!” When two weeks later, the United States won the final against Sweden’s bitter local rivals, Norway, the team welcomed them by spelling out the word “Congratulations” with their gold socks and a round gold hotel chocolate to dot the “i”.

In the space of fourteen days, the United States team won six matches to become the sport’s first official world champions but Dorrance admits to me that their high-energy, physical approach nearly came undone. “Honestly by the final game, we were burned out. Even though we were dominant in every game, we certainly dodged a bullet because in the third group game, I played my entire reserve unit. That obviously got the legs back for the starters but we also won the game because they were going in fresh. So, all of a sudden we went into the quarter-final game fresh as daises, ripped through that one (7-0 against Chinese Taipei), still had enough juice left to destroy a very good West German team (5-2) and then went on to the final against Norway. By the final, we were absolutely knackered! Our legs were shot and we were absolutely dead. All the predictions that were about us playing a high-pressing game in an abbreviated tournament were about to come true. We won the game but I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say that the Norwegians probably had 55-60% of the play”.

The United States prevailed in no small part due to the indefatigably of their star striker Michelle Akers. Top scorer in the tournament, she scored the late match-winning goal, her tenth of the finals, after pressing the Norwegian back-line into a mistake in true Dorrance style. In 2000, she was hailed by FIFA as one of two female players of the century. Even after coaching the likes of Mia Hamm, Tobin Heath and Lucy Bronze at North Carolina, Dorrance remains convinced of Akers’ eternal greatness. “She is a player without a weakness”, he tells me, “and they’ve very few players you can say that about. She was one of the best headers in the world, if not the best. She could finish chances with the left foot, she could finish chances with her right foot. She had the vision on a play-making midfielder, because she had played there every day of her life until I decided to shift her to the forward line because Julie Foudy had come of age in the play-making role”.

“The lessons that all the young players should learn from Michelle is the way she wanted us to coach her. She just wanted criticism. All Michelle Akers wanted was the truth. If was I was too complimentary about her in a player’s conference, she would actually get upset with me because she wanted to be the best player in the world, the best player of all time. All she wanted me to do was to let her know areas of her game that she could work on to get better. Most people would argue that she’s the greatest player of all time. Even though there are a lot of extraordinary players, I don’t think there’s a player out there that you can say is absolutely complete, but you can say that about Michelle Akers”.

Dorrance stepped down as head coach in 1994 but the program has gone on to win three more World Cup titles and four Olympic Golds, never deviating from the winning mentality instilled in them by their first world champion coach. “I think that quality is still the American quality” believes Dorrance. “I think it’s going to be very tough for the teams out there to supplant the mentality of the United States. That was established when I was hired in 1986 with this thing which I call “the competitive cauldron” where everything in practice is recorded. This is a wonderful platform to develop mentality.”

Still working in the American college system after all these years, Dorrance is a firm believer in its ability to shape athletes, even if those players end up defeating the United States. “What is interesting is the team that beat us in the Olympics, the team who’s players are trained in the American system. Why? Because all those Canadians come south for college. The one band that still preserves the United States at the elite level is this 17-22 year-old group where American players all come into the United State collegiate system. I think they thrive in that environment. The American collegiate platform in a wonderfully holistic way to have a young kid mature in an environment that is nurturing her, not just academically.”

“The United States is no longer the most athletic team in every game, you could look at the French against us in 2019 and look at the amazing athletes they had on that roster. You could look at the tactical teams, like the Germans and the Dutch, I wouldn’t say we were superior in that area either. You would look at the technical platform of the Japanese and say clearly, they are technically better than the United States, but we still have this mentality that I think is extraordinary that still puts us in a position where we’re going to compete on the world stage.”

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