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Interview: Anson Dorrance on Coaching Through Adversity

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Anson Dorrance is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of sports. Under his direction, the University of North Carolina has won 21 of the 31 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championships. Dorrance has been named the NCAA coach of the year seven times, and as coach of the USWNT, he won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Below, he spoke with Just Women’s Sports about coaching during a pandemic, why his experience with the national team prepared him for this, and his ongoing efforts to facilitate competitiveness in women’s sports. 

You’ve coached for a long time. Have you ever experienced anything like what is currently happening due to COVID-19? Is there any parallel you can draw or is this completely unprecedented? 

Actually, there is a parallel. This experience is similar to the way we had to develop our 1991 World Cup team back in the mid ’80s when I was hired to coach the US women’s national team. We had never won a game in an international competition. Five years later, we were world champions. What people don’t understand about that World Cup is how it was done. It was done through the teeth of the Scandinavian teams and the Italians who had a much larger investment in their women’s soccer program than we had ever had, and obviously a lot more experience.

If you look at teams in the 1991 World Cup — the Norwegians, the Swedes, and to some extent the Danes and the Italians — their rosters were filled with players who had accumulated caps, and they had large investments from their countries. Since we didn’t have any money from our soccer federation and the girls weren’t playing on any professional teams, it was hard for us to get together to train. Instead, we had to train on our own, just like players are having to train on their own now. I had to pick players to play on the national team who were self-disciplined enough that they could train themselves and come into camp fit. They also had to buy into the way we were going to try to win.

I do not have the life or death pandemic experience under my belt, but I have had experience with having players train on their own. I’m using that to talk to our college kids now. I’m saying: come back as a better player, come back fitter, come back with a more powerful strike from playing against a wall, come back a better 1V1 player from playing your brother, sister, mom, dad or your dog. We meet with the team every Monday at 2:30pm on a Zoom call. We excite everyone about getting better and better. We’re not kicking back, relaxing, eating Bon-Bons. No, we’re trying to get better.

How did you develop a coaching strategy for that 1991 World Cup given the limited investment and lack of opportunities to play together? Was it difficult to get players to play cohesively as a team with such limited training time? 

Since we didn’t have a lot of training camps and since the players weren’t coming from sophisticated teams, we decided the way we were going to win was by out-dueling every team in the world. By out-dueling, I mean that our philosophy was built on a platform of 1V1. Wherever our girls lived, they could always find at least one quality partner to train with. A lot of girls just trained with the boys they were dating.

The most famous story was Carin Jennings. She was dating Jim Gabarra. Jim was the captain of the US Futsal National Team, so he was one hell of a male player. Carin’s training platform of playing 1V1 against him every day was extraordinary for her because there’s no better example of getting to your potential in women’s soccer than playing with and against boys.

During the first camp I ever ran, I said, “Everyone come in fit. If you’re not fit, I’m sending you home.” The girls got there on a Sunday. Monday morning was our first training session and we had a fitness test. One of the girls failed, so I had her gather up all of her equipment that was there at the practice. She jumped in a van with one of the managers. The manager drove her back to the hotel where she packed her stuff and then he drove her to the airport and he sent her home.

That was wonderful, but the second thing that was wonderful was that we didn’t tell the players whether the test was going to be a fitness test or a 1V1 tournament. As a result, if they wanted to do well in the competitive cauldron, they had to prepare for both.

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DORRANCE WITH HIS TEAM IN 1994 (DAVID MADISON/GETTY IMAGES)
Depending on where they live, some players may not want to risk going outside and potentially contracting the virus and bringing it to their families. Do you have concerns about that and any other limitations affecting the individual athletes? 

Well, yes. It’s hard to find a field to train on because even our university fields are closed. Our governor in North Carolina is liberal, which means he believes in the stay-at-home orders. The Republican governors believe in opening up the economy. The specific state players are in dictates whether or not they can gather in groups to train or not.

There are training pockets for players. Some girls hang out together, some still live on campus together. I want my players to go after it and to keep working hard while trying to stay safe by following the dictates of the governors. Regardless of their state’s limitations, players can always find a 1V1 partner. It can be their dad or their mom. If both of them suck, play them both — play 1V2. Almost every player has a brother or a sister who they can train against.

How much of that training are you dictating for them? Are you guys putting together training packets or are you just encouraging them to do it on their own?

We have what we call the Champion’s Almanac, which is something we put together a long time ago that outlines different workouts every day. It’s a combination of strength training, aerobic fitness training and ball mastery development.

We also encourage 1V1 platforms which can be hard because girls hate to compete against each other 1V1. They have no issue playing their boyfriend or their mom or their brother, but making them play against a friend or a teammate 1V1 is horrible. Who knows whether this is a genetic quality or a social quality where the girls are trained not to have this sort of direct confrontation. But we encourage it.

This is something you’ve been vocal about throughout your career, that we need to encourage more aggressiveness and competition in women’s soccer. Mia Hamm said you made it ok for her to want to be the best when she arrived at UNC. Can you talk more about why you think this hesitation still exists and what its impact is on women’s sports? 

I talk about this in my camps all the time. I talk about how easy it is for men to have direct confrontation. Why? Because we understand hierarchy. We understand the fight to be the alpha. We’re accustomed to competing. If there’s a man shooting hoops on a basketball court and another man shows up, within minutes one guy turns to the other and says, “Hey, do you want to play?” I know what that means. It means let’s find out who the alpha is. Girls don’t do that.

Girls play turn-taking games like HORSE where first, I shoot and you don’t interfere with me, and then you shoot and I don’t interfere with you. Girls don’t have any trouble with that because all of the games they grew up playing were non-confrontational games. You go back to my generation. What did my generation of girls play? They played Jacks. Jacks is a game where basically I don’t interfere with you and you don’t interfere with me but we’re still, in a way, competing with each other.

We have to eradicate this dislike for direct confrontation if we want to lead women’s soccer playing culture. Our girls need to embrace 1V1 and not be afraid of it. I made sure that these ideas were part of the national team culture when I coached and now I try to implement them in the Tar Heel culture.

That’s the way the US won the first Women’s World Cup. We did it by being fitter than everyone else. We did it by playing extraordinary 1V1 soccer and we did it by pressing for 90 minutes. Not the classic modern press where you drop back to a line of confrontation half way between the 18 and the tangent on the center circle. No, no, no. We pressed if the ball was near their corner flag. We were all over them. We didn’t back off for one second. Those are the elements that delivered that World Championship to us.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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