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Anson Dorrance Describes the Daring Decisions He Made in the ‘91 Women’s World Cup and the Dynasty He Helped Create


ussoccer.com recently spoke with Anson Dorrance, former head coach for the Women’s National Team and current head coach at North Carolina. Dorrance is well known in the soccer community for his many achievements and contributions to the women’s game.

He began his coaching career at the University of North Carolina on the men’s side before helping to start their women’s program in 1979. He created one of the best college soccer regimes there and won 21 NCAA National Championships including in 2012. He was inducted to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2008.

Dorrance became the head coach for the Women’s National Team in 1986. He compiled an impressive record of 66-22-5 during his eight years with the team before Tony DiCiccio took over in 1994. In 1991 Dorrance led the WNT to the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in China. Despite a young squad and fierce competition, the team won the World Cup and created a dynasty of U.S. Women’s Soccer that lives on today. Below Dorrance describes for readers his memories of the 1991 World Cup and how he led his young team to be World Champions.

ussoccer.com: In 1991, you brought in a lot of young players for that run to the World Cup. What inspired you to do that? At the time you talked about how it was a little bit of a risk since they were just kids...
Anson Dorrance: “When we were forming this National Team, we really didn’t know when the World Cup would have its first show. We thought it was going to be in ’90, ‘91 or ’92 but we weren’t sure when FIFA was going to host it. The team I had already was actually a quality team. We had a lot of outstanding senior level players. But Hank Leung, our national youth coach at the time, had this U19 team that was special. Everyone will recognize the names - Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Fowdy, Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck. It was just laced with these kids that I thought were going to be our future.

"So I decided to take a gamble. I thought, let’s bring these young kids on, take our licks for a while, and just hope that whenever FIFA decides to have this World Championship these kids are ready. This was a big risk because we went and played in a tournament in Taiwan and everyone beat us. We were playing the young kids and we just weren’t getting any results. We had a really miserable event. I was actually thinking that this was it for me. I thought I was done. Then through some miracle I wasn’t fired after that event and we started to build this team a bit and began to have some success.”

ussoccer.com:
In that period leading up to 1990-91, that team, yourself, and your coaching staff certainly set the foundation for what the National team has grown in to, which is what some would say is the most successful and most popular women’s team in the world. What are your pillars of that tradition that were established back then?
AD:
“I think the key element was that we were different. We played a different style. We were very American in the way we approached the game and in our confidence going in to matches. We built our foundation on things like the individual duel. We were going to win every head ball, we were going to win every tackle, and we were going to win every one vs. one contest when we were running at defenses.

"There was also an incredible bond among all of the players. Back then we had so few training camps that we really had to rely on this self-coach idea. When our players left the training camp they weren’t going to come back in two or three months, they were going to come back to camp in a year. In this interim period the players had to train on their own. So we had to find the sort of women that had this discipline, when no one cared about them or their game, to get out there and do some work and reach their potential on their own. There are a lot of very unique things about this team and I think the strains of that are still what set the U.S. apart right now.”

ussoccer.com: You talked a bit about how you took some lumps leading in to the tournament; did the world view you as the favorites going in to the ’91 World Cup or did you know in your mind you were?
AD: “No the world didn’t view us as favorites. They thought we would melt under the pressure of a World Cup. They thought we didn’t have coaches with the experience to navigate this sort of world event. I remember people saying that traditional powers like Germany would take over and this wouldn’t be a successful outing for the United States. But I remember thinking to myself, I think they are wrong; I think we can win the whole thing.

What was fun about taking our team in to the World Cup was that we were absolutely unorthodox. We played a 3-4-3 which was like sacrilegious. People thought, ‘you’re not playing a 4-4-2, what kind of tactical midgets are you? You’re going to high-pressure? You can’t high-pressure in an event where you have a game every three days.’

So it was one criticism after another and one explanation after another why we weren’t going to be successful. But in the back of my mind I was thinking, I think we’re going to win this thing, I think we’ve got a shot. I don’t care what anyone says, we are going to go after this and I think we’re going to shock some teams. We proceeded to just go after teams and score goals.”

ussoccer.com: What were some of the highlights of that 1991 World Cup tournament for you? What memories really pop out, whether they were on or off the field?
AD: “The highlight for me was that we could play at this level. We were going to be a factor and people were going to have to deal with us. Countries had never played against a team like ours. They had never seen these one vs. one personalities that we had. If you looked at our front seven, almost every player was an elite take on artist. We were great duelers. We were gritty. We were to some extent irreverent because we didn’t worship at the altar of the 4-4-2 and we didn’t play the ball around in the back for half an hour to show we could possess it. We were different and we scared teams because we were different. We made a statement about who we were and it was a wonderful coming out party for the United States.”

ussoccer.com: Michelle Akers scored 10 goals in the tournament, which is still a World Cup record. But in the semifinal, all of your goals were scored by Heinrichs and Jennings. Was that semifinal a shocker for the Germans do you think?
AD: “Our best game of the tournament was the semifinal against the Germans. The coolest thing about that victory was the German coach we beat in that game. Their coach was the Director of Coaching for Germany who had decided to basically adopt the women’s team to help his country out. This was someone who had trained the elite coaches in the Bundesliga. This was the guy who would instruct all of the elite coaches about the cutting edge of the game at the international level.

"What was cool is that it was almost like I read his book because I knew what he was going to do. He was going to play a certain way regardless. His center back was going to get the ball and play it out to the right back. Then the right back was going to look for it, see that nothing was on, and was going to patiently play it back to the center back, who was now going to change the point and play it out to the left back. So I’m sitting there thinking, he’s not going to change; this is the way they play and they’re not going to change. Now of course that was the perfect system for us to play against because if they played it out to their left or right back, we were going to pressure that back. If they played it back to their sweeper, we were going to pressure their sweeper. So we lit them up by high pressuring them, winning the ball in their half, and then with a short distance to the goal, we were going to have opportunities to score and that’s exactly what happened.”

ussoccer.com: Moving on to the final. Not many people have really seen the 1991 World Cup final in this day and age. Can you tell us how that match went? Was it back and forth?
AD:
“No it wasn’t back and forth. By this point we were shredded. All of the criticisms of the American system were brought to bear because now we didn’t have our legs left. We had completely emptied our tank against the Germans and we could hardly move. But the one quality we had that continues to separate us from everyone in the world is this indomitable spirit. The Norwegians actually dominated the game. We won against the run because of a remarkable personality in the body of Michelle Akers, and the great vision and service ability of Shannon Higgins. We were absolutely spent at this point in the tournament and we won against the run of play.

"One thing I’ll never forget was the comment the Norwegian coach said after the game. I basically conceded in the press conference after the game that this was Norway’s game and we won against the run. I’ve never been a coach to try to puff something up that wasn’t true so I conceded that in the press conference. The thing I really respect the Norwegian coach for was after the game he said, ‘well this might be true that this may have been a better game for us, but this tournament for the United States was extraordinary. None of us have seen a team play with this sort of attacking aggression for an entire event and so you are worthy World Champions’.

"I really appreciated that gesture from a wonderful rival whom I respected on and off the field. We won that game against the run of play because of the indefatigable human spirit. We won it for the very reasons the U.S. is continuing to win. This mentality has always separated us even going back to 1991.”

ussoccer.com: What are your thoughts on watching those kids such as Lily, Fawcett, Fowdy, and Mia grow in to the players that basically made this program what it was?
AD: “I’m incredibly proud of them. We invested in them early at a huge risk and they paid us back. There was no guarantee this was going to work. It was a huge gamble. When you take young kids you never know where their game is going to go. Yet they cleared every hurdle and they became dynastic. After ‘91 we had these blooded World Champions who were teenagers or just out of teenage hood and now they got to mature on the world stage as they started to achieve their playing peak. Your playing peak isn’t 19, 20, or 21, it’s a lot later. So then this matured team got to put its stamp on the international game.

"The players were so young then and they kept getting better and better and the team evolved. I think the team has been evolving ever since. I think Tony DiCiccio did a wonderful job when he became our head coach and I think every coach since has added a nuance or an embellishment on to this bedrock that was started in ‘91. I think we are continuing to evolve. I think Pia Sundhage did a wonderful job polishing this diamond and making us more sophisticated and bringing us in to this tactical, technical era. I think Tom Sermanni will do the same thing. I think he’s a brilliant coach. I think he will continue to polish this diamond, and I think the U.S. still has a tremendous future in the women’s game.”

ussoccer.com: You’ve seen many big events now over the past ten years whether it’s the ‘99 World Cup or the ‘96 Olympics or the 2011 World Cup in Germany and of course the 2012 Olympics. Recently we went on this ten game tour and we averaged 17,000 fans a game. How fun has it been for you to watch where we are now coming from where you started way back then?
AD: “It is fun. And it makes me feel great because the women’s game is still relevant. It’s becoming more and more media centered. You can pick up almost any newspaper or watch through any media outlet that we’re going to be covered. Our role models are wonderful. Let’s face it, we have wonderful interesting personalities and you know what, they can play. I just love where the women’s game is now and where it is going.”
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