Most women’s college soccer teams deploy a back line of four defenders, sometimes even five.  Not UNC.  There may be safety in numbers but, as far as Carolina is concerned, there are no national championships.  So as the Tar Heels (10-5-2) seek a 21st NCAA title beginning with today’s opening round game against Radford (14-2-4) in the 64-team tournament, UNC will once again try to stop opponents from scoring with just a defensive trio rather than a quartet.

“If we are going to win it all, it’s going to be withthree in the back,” sophomore defender Satara Murray said before a recent practice. 

But of late, winning it all has gone from automatic to problematic for the Heels.  After back-to-back championships in 2008 and 2009, UNC has failed to advance even to a regional final either of the past two seasons.

Carolina’s NCAA ouster in 2010 was particularly humbling: a 4-1 loss to Notre Dame in Chapel Hill. That third round beat down, coupled with head coach Anson Dorrance’s appreciation for the success the French national team had during the 2011 women’s World Cup using a 4-2-3-1 formation, led UNC to rely on a fourth defender for much of last season.

The switch was an acknowledgement that Carolina no longer seemed capable of dominating opponents by relying on superior-skilled and better-conditioned players.  A growing number of teams across the ACC and nation now field squads with passing prowess sufficient to withstand UNC’s pressure and strikers capable of finishing when a ball is played through UNC’s back line.  And since the graduation of standout goalie Ashlyn Harris in 2009, Carolina has lacked a shutdown keeper able to compensate consistently for defensive lapses.

But after managing only one win in a four game stretch late last season, Dorrance and his second-in-command Bill Palladino had second thoughts about their decision to add a fourth defender. The upside of playing just three in the back – more opportunity for pressure, possession, and scoring thanks to an additional striker – proved too great to resist and Carolina returned to only three defenders for its NCAA run.  With Meg Morris, Megan Brigman, and Caitlin Ball anchoring the back line, UNC gave up only one goal over the course of 110 minutes (regulation plus two overtimes) in its Sweet Sixteen matchup against the University of Central Florida.  Carolina ultimately lost to UCF on penalty kicks.

UNC entered this season re-committed to its high-risk, high-reward formation but a bane of soccer – leg injuries – quickly posed a new challenge.  Brigman suffered a season-ending bone fracture four minutes into Carolina’s opening game, a 1-0 loss to Portland.  Four matches later, Ball endured a severe ankle sprain that sidelined her for multiple games.  With Morris moved up to midfield to provide offensive punch while several Carolina strikers missed games due to U20 and U17 national team duties, Carolina needed a brand new backline.

Replacements came from nearby, but still unexpected, places.  Tabbed for the left side was freshman Hanna Gardner, an East Chapel Hill High School graduate who came to Carolina without a scholarship.  The gangly Gardner has proved a natural, earning ACC All-Freshman Team honors despite never playing in a three-back system before. 

She admits the learning curve has been steep. “Dino [Bill Palladino] lectures me constantly,” said Gardner.  “I’ve been watching a lot of video trying to get it right.”

As for the pivotal center back role, Dorrance and “Dino” turned to an all-world talent: Crystal Dunn.  Along with teammate Kealia Ohai, Dunn spent part of the fall leading the U.S. Women’s U20 team to a World Cup title.  Although she tallied nine goals her freshman year and is still listed as a forward in the team’s media guide, the now junior from Rockville Center, New York is arguably the best defender in league history.  Last week, Dunn was named the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year becoming the first woman to win the award twice.
At right back is Satara Murray who hails from the Lone Star State’s capital, leads the team in minutes played (1508), and is the only one of the three backs trained exclusively as a defender during her pre-Carolina youth soccer days.

Standing behind Murray, Dunn and Gardner is goalkeeper Adelaide Gay who transferred to UNC from Yale. While many college-level goalies now top out at or near six feet, the 5’6 Gay can be hard to spot when offensive and defensive players collapse around a ball in the Tar Heels’ box.  In what’s become a well-publicized dis thanks to ESPN, Gay was discouraged from coming to Carolina by Dorrance who told her: “Don’t come; you’re never going to play.”  In 34 years at the helm, UNC’s coach has rarely been more wrong.  This season Gay has established herself as the team’s No. 1 keeper, played over 1,000 minutes, and posted a respectable 0.59 goals against per game average.

Defensive mastermind Palladino sees his back unit as a group of equals operating as one.  But Gay, Gardner and Murray all say that Dunn is in charge.  Dunn pleads guilty. “I’m a dominant personality, and I’m very comfortable talking.”

Overall, the Dunn-led defense has been strong giving up only 12 goals all season.  But with Carolina’s offense at times sputtering – the Heels have scored one goal or none on eight occasions – any defensive lapse can be a game-changer.  Or, in the one-loss-and-done NCAA tournament, a season-ender.  And even Dunn, while winning countless 1v1 duels against such elite strikers as Florida State’s Tiffany McCarty and Wake Forest’s Katie Stengel, has been beat.  “It’s discouraging to get scored on,” said Dunn reflecting on the battles she’s lost.  “But that’s soccer.”

As Carolina’s quest for an almost incomprehensible 21st crown begins (the Fighting Irish are second in NCAA titles with three), the defensive unit that will try to lead the team from behind lends itself to labeling in “Breakfast Club” terms.  A walk on. A talker. A Texan.  All fronting a goalie who, like Rodney Dangerfield, can’t get any respect. 

Head coach Dorrance is known for his use of famous lines to urge on his squad.  The NCAA final will be played December 2 in San Diego. Should Carolina find itself there, Dorrance – or better yet the loquacious Dunn – could seek to inspire UNC’s outnumbered back line with a Shakespearean exhortation (albeit one updated to reflect women on a soccer field rather than men on a battlefield): We wish not one woman more for it would lessen the share of honor.  We few, we happy few, we band of sisters. 

UNC’s Band of Three, plus their teammates, start their NCAA tournament play at Fetzer Field at 5 p.m.

(A version of this article appears in the News & Observer)