When it comes to winning international team sport competitions, Dean Smith unveiled the secret 35 years ago: Tarheels, lots of Tarheels. It is a strategy for success I wish the US Women’s National Soccer Team — with only two UNC alums on its 21 player roster — was utilizing in the 2011 World Cup that begins this week in Germany.
Back in 1976, Smith coached the US Men’s National Basketball Team at the Montreal Olympics in addition to overseeing the Tarheels. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s referee-aided upset of the Americans four years before, the pressure on Smith to produce a gold medal winning team was intense. When the twelve player squad he assembled included four UNC players — Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak and Tommy LaGarde — some sportswriters howled. When the team avenged the ’72 Olympic loss with a perfect 7-0 record and a gold medal, the critics were silenced.
Fast forward to today. As US women’s soccer coach Pia Sundhage made her last roster cuts, she had available at least ten UNC players with the requisite talent to compete effectively against any national team in the world. Unlike Smith, Sundhage decided not to stack her team with players who knew each other’s game.
(Indeed, Smith’s ’76 team also included three ACC players — Duke’s Tates Armstrong, State’s Kenny Carr, and Maryland’s Steve Sheppard — whose skills and styles his Heels knew well, plus two Indiana University teammates — Scott May and Quinn Buckner.) Only three Tarheels made the final team and one of them, Lindsay Tarpley, was lost quickly due to injury. While Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath should play magnificiently together, two soccer players cannot determine the impact of an 11 on 11 game.
Of course, Dean’s Carolina blue-hued “Dream Team” isn’t the only example of national teams loaded with players intimately familiar with each other as athletes succeeding. Guess what the best outcome predictor was in last year’s men’s World Cup? The national team with more players from the same club soccer team won nearly every single match. This included the title game won by Spain and led by seven players from the famed Barcelona club team.
Whatever happens in this year’s World Cup, here is my advice to the US National Team powers that be for 2015: convince UNC coach Anson Dorrance (who coached America to victory in the 1991 Women’s World Cup) to lead the US team and let him put on as many Tarheels as he wants (including current UNC players such Crystal Dunn, Courtney Jones, Meg Morris and Kealia Ohai). Coach Smith would be proud.