Talk about a running start. The University of North Carolina will open its residence halls to students on August 19th and classes begin two days later. However, before all that can even happen, the UNC women’s soccer team will square off against the Duke Blue Devils in their season opener on August 18th. And you thought Football was playing Duke early.
On top of that, North Carolina plays their home game at at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. This is how sixth-ranked Tar Heels will start their 2017 campaign. Against a familiar opponent in unfamiliar territory.
Because of the ACC expansion, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will not have a conference game on the 2017 schedule. Instead, the two teams will face off in the UNC Nike Classic, a non-conference battle more than a month before the start of ACC play. With Fetzer under construction, the game will be played at the home of North Carolina FC.
These unusual circumstances should not, however, obscure the fact that this is going to be a massive game, and one that will serve as a an early measurement for where the Tar Heels stand as a national contender.
As was discussed last month, the Tar Heels have gone four years without hoisting a national championship trophy, which, by the unearthly standards of the legendary Anson Dorrance, is something of an eternity in Chapel Hill. Last year's team—one of the youngest teams in the country—made a run to the National Semifinal where they were eventually beaten by #1 overall seed West Virginia. The Heels return six starters from that squad, led by Bridgette Andrzejewski, a sophomore forward on the Hermann Trophy watchlist, and Jessie Scarpa, a preseason All-ACC Selection.
The #12 Blue Devils return ten of their eleven starters from last year and nine of their top eleven scorers. They bring experience and offensive firepower to match against a Tar Heel squad that posted a five-game shutout streak carrying all the way into last year's National Semifinals. This Blue Devil team also has not lost to UNC since 2014, winning the 2015 matchup and battling to a scoreless draw in Chapel Hill last year.
Though it comes early and will have no bearing on an ACC Championship, this is a high-level matchup between two teams that have designs on making a deep run come tournament time. For Duke, it will be a chance to make an early statement that their veteran side can make this a vintage year in Durham. For UNC, it will be the first step towards regaining the throne that the Tar Heels have come to regard as their very own. The dorms may still be empty, but the bleachers should not be.