In a sense, Anson Dorrance is the Geno Auriemma of NCAA women’s soccer.
Now in his 44th season as North Carolina’s coach and with 21 national championships, he’s even more successful than the legendary UConn women’s basketball coach. When asked about the newcomer to this week’s College Cup, Dorrance paraphrased his hoops partner.
Because when you read the list of the four teams alive for the 2022 national crown, Alabama doesn’t necessarily fit with North Carolina, UCLA and Florida State.
It was Auriemma who in recent years spoke of the rise of new powers to challenge the old guard.
“There are no automatic wins in women’s basketball anymore,” was the gist of Auriemma’s comments, as Dorrance recalled Monday. “And this is a good thing.”
Until a year ago, Alabama hadn’t even won an NCAA game, while the other three have 25 of 39 titles since the first NCAA tournament in 1982.
So when the Crimson Tide (23-2-1) take on UCLA at 7:30 p.m. CT on Friday in the semifinal, it will be another page of history for a program that has never been anywhere near this neighborhood. The Bruins (20-2-1) won the 2013 national title, while the most recent of the four second-place finishes came in 2017.
The other semifinal includes North Carolina (19-4-1) and Florida State, the defending national champion with three total crowns. Alabama coach Wes Hart was an assistant coach in the Seminoles’ title run in 2014.
Alabama defeated three-time runner-up Duke to reach the College Cup.
“They walked through a collection of blue bloods to get to where they are,” Dorrance said. A credit to Alabama certainly, but it’s also a credit to the evolution of the American game. Hats off to my colleagues who work so hard to make winning every game incredibly difficult for us, but also for the other traditional powers. Now it is more difficult for blue bloods to penetrate the NCAA tournament. And every match is heartbreaking.”
The Crimson Tide came to this point with an aggressive pressing style and a 2.92 goal average that ranks second nationally.
For Hart, a question about the possibility of winning the program’s first national championship was an opportunity for reflection.
“Oh gosh, it would be huge,” he said Monday. “The best thing for us is that what we’ve already accomplished is pretty impressive… I think everything we’ve done so far has been groundbreaking for this program and pretty special. So from here on out, I think that’s the icing on the cake. But, gosh, it would be great to win that College Cup.”
Acknowledging the history and lore of the other three contenders and the context of his career, Hart said a win at Alabama “would be a very good statement.”
To do that, the Crimson Tide plans to use the same fun, aggressive style that brought them to Cary, NC.
Hart said he “likes the matchup” against a “loaded” UCLA program.
“For us, I have no problem saying this because I don’t think it’s a secret, we’re going to attack them,” Hart said. “And we’re going to put pressure on them and we’re going to try to make them uncomfortable and see if they can deal with it.”
They will face a UCLA team averaging 2.70 goals per game (7th nationally). UCLA freshman head coach Margueritte Aozasa said she admires the creativity and intelligence behind Alabama’s attack.
However, the physical brand Alabama uses hasn’t always been the Bruins’ preference.
“I think that was one of the things we wanted to work on,” he said. “We wanted to reestablish UCLA as an athletic team that doesn’t shy away from combative games. Fortunately, we have gained a lot of ground that way, but it will be tested on Friday. We’ll be curious to see how it goes. But it’s not something that maybe we would have been a little nervous about, but I think this year we have shown that we can play with physical teams.
UCLA had early season road victories over Duke and North Carolina, but had some close calls in the NCAA tournament. Like Alabama’s quarterfinal win over Duke, the Bruins needed overtime to beat Virginia two games after a second-round win over UCF required penalty kicks.
Alabama’s road to Cary included a 9-0 win over Alabama State, a 2-1 win over two-time NCAA champion Portland, and a 3-1 win over UC-Irvine. It then took a 2-0 lead over Duke before winning 3-2 in overtime on Friday in Tuscaloosa.
All four of Alabama’s NCAA tournament victories have come on friendly ground, and Hart knows the neutral site will be a different beast.
“Who knows, under the bright lights of the NCAA semifinals, I don’t know how much nerves will play into things,” he said. “But I’m anticipating a good soccer game.”
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or in Facebook.