It was 1991 when the first Women's World Cup was played in China, and Anson Dorrance led the United States to its inaugural victory against Norway. Despite leaving his post as head coach of the team in 1994, Dorrance's influence is still felt on the pitch.
Dorrance is entering his 33rd year as head coach of the North Carolina women's soccer team, which has captured 20 NCAA titles. He spoke with SI.com's Jonathan Jones about the difference in the sport's exposure from the 1991 World Cup, what the U.S. should use to their advantage against Japan and how he sees current coach Pia Sundhage's style absorbed by the team.
SI.com: Do you believe the Women's World Cup gets the amount of attention it deserves today while being a relatively new event?
Anson Dorrance: Yes, I think the attention is extraordinary. I read where someone wrote up that, at least in Germany, the viewing of the Germany-Canada game outdrew the TV audience for the German men's opening game in South Africa. Even a statement like that in a soccer-mad country like Germany that supports the men, for the women to have that support it's great. It's been well-watched.
SI.com: How little attention do you remember the 1991 World Cup getting in the States?
AD: The joke all of us keep revisiting is that we played in front of sold-out crowds in China, and yeah it's a sold-out crowd, but it's all factory workers who were required to watch the game and got paid a factory wage to do so. Yeah it was well-attended there, but there wasn't as much attention in the States. USA Today covered it and we heard that people would drive out to airports and buy the USA Todays to see how we did. I think there was some interest with soccer fanatics. When we flew back in, one or two people met the flight. One was the men's national coach, Bora Milutinovic, who I think was required to be there and I think maybe one journalist.
SI.com: You preach intestinal fortitude to your players. How much fortitude did that Abby Wambach header to tie Brazil take?
AD: It wasn't just the header, but the fact that the U.S. played a man down and had the resolve to fight like grim death to hang in there. It was a Hollywood movie about never giving up. It's classic of what I think the American athletic spirit is about.
SI.com: In the U.S. loss to Sweden in group play, it was the first time in the history of Women's World Cup that there was a game played without a former or current Tar Heel on the pitch. Did you recognize that at the time? When you did recognize it, how did you feel?
AD: Absolutely we recognize it and then we were teasing all of those around about it. If you didn't have a Tar Heel on the field, then you're not going to win. Well there you go. Don't play any Tar Heels and see what happens. We embraced the loss with the joke.
SI.com: What are the most important adjustments the U.S. needs to make in order to beat Japan?
AD: I think that Japan's a wonderful matchup for us. I think we match up very well. Sweden would have been a more difficult match as we saw in group play. The qualities that we possess that will be a challenge for Japan is that we're certainly a lot bigger and you've seen how important Wambach has been in the air. The French played very well against us. French were the dominant team even though the score doesn't indicate that, so we need to take back that dominance. We're bigger and better in the air and we're also faster. With Japan, they bring two weapons. Firstly, they're beautifully technical. The Japanese have the best possession in this World Cup and everyone has an exquisite first touch. Also their recruiting; they're playing for their country in a very real way. They're playing for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami and playing for something beyond themselves.
SI.com: While you were coaching the team, you saw current U.S. coach Pia Sundhage play. How much of her playing style do you see in this year's squad?
AD: I think she's trying to make it a more sophisticated soccer-playing nation. I think she has the right ideas in training. It was something [U.S. women's soccer assistant coach] Marcia McDermott shared with me and I think it's making me buy into this World Cup. The U.S. team came down to Cary, N.C., to play Japan and during practice I talked to Marcia for several minutes and asked her what she really likes. She said Pia has a wonderful patience that comes from technical training. She'll have a player repeat crosses for 20, 30, 40 minutes and most American coaches don't have the patience and feel like they have to entertain their team with variety. At WakeMed Soccer Park on the field next to the stadium I saw Shannon Boxx and [U.S. women's soccer assistant coach] Hege Riise. And all Shannon Boxx was doing, she prepared the ball with one foot and served this 40-, 50-yard ball to Riise who was on the run. And the ball would be passed around and they kept doing it. It looked like it was interminable 20-30 minutes. Then when I saw Rapinoe's ball to Wambach's head in the Brazil game and Cheney's ball to Wambach's head against France, I was thinking what I'm seeing is this very experienced and sophisticated Swede trying to get fundamental training into American players' fabric and I'm seeing the result. Now there are some things that worry me. I'm seeing teams dominate us for stretches of games like France. But there are a lot of positives, and the best positive I see is Pia's commitment to technical development.
SI.com: No longer are Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain the only households names in women's soccer, but also Hope Solo and Abby Wambach. What kind of joy do you derive from that in a sport that you've devoted the past three decades of your life to?
AD: The thing that concerned all of us, the passionate patriots for American soccer is that this is an event hosted in Germany. And even though we were No. 1, the Germans playing at home and they have to be favored because they've won the last two World Cups. What'd I'd like to see is us separate from the tie in World Cups. Because Germany has won the last two, I'd have to give the edge to Germany. But if we win this, it gives us a 3-2 margin over Germany and I think that's absolutely priceless for our morale, our soccer culture and everyone in this country that loves the women's game.