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UNC Soccer: Eight Tar Heels to take part in NWSL playoffs

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At least one UNC alumn is on all four of the rosters taking part in the postseason.

Sky Blue FC v North Carolina Courage

Dean Smith’s famous quote that UNC “is a women’s soccer school” still proves to be true to this day. The current Tar Heel team is ranked third in the nation, having lost just once all season. However, it’s some of the players of the past that will take to the stage for some big games over the next two weeks.

The National Women’s Soccer League, the highest professional women’s soccer league in the US, kicks off its playoffs this weekend, and as should be no surprise, there’s quite a number of Tar Heels who will take part. Eight UNC women’s soccer alumns are spread out among the four NWSL teams that field this weekend. The number is nine if you count one player who played two seasons in Chapel Hill before transferring.

The biggest grouping of Tar Heels is, maybe not shockingly, on the North Carolina Courage. The Courage are the reigning champions, and followed that season up by finishing 2019 with the best record in the regular season. Four, plus the aforementioned transfer, former UNC players are on the roster of the team that will try to retain their title.

One of the big stories for this Courage team will be trying to send out Heather O’Reilly as a champion. While she doesn’t get a ton of playing time, the UNC/USWNT legend and recently added Tar Heel assistant coach announced that she will retire at the conclusion of this season.

Likely playing a bigger role in the Courage’s quest will be Crystal Dunn and Jessica McDonald. Dunn played as a defender for the victorious USWNT team this summer, but she plays much more of an attacking role for the Courage. Since returning from the World Cup, Dunn has scored three and assisted on three other goals in the ten matches she has played. Meanwhile, McDonald comes into their semifinal on a bit of a role, having scored two goals this past weekend.

Also on their roster is Sam Leshak, who is the third string goalkeeper, and likely won’t see any action. There’s also Merritt Mathias, who helped the Tar Heels to a pair of College Cup titles before playing her final two seasons at Texas A&M.

The Courage’s opponent in the semifinal round will be Reign FC. The Tacoma, Washington-based team, have just one Tar Heel on the team, but she is important to their chances.

Defensive midfielder Allie Long played in 11 of the Reign’s 12 matches post-World Cup, and was on the field for all but 47 minutes of that time frame. They won four of those games to qualify for the playoffs fairly comfortably in the end. Long will have a difficult task in trying to keep Dunn, McDonald in the Courage’s attack in check. The last two meetings between the teams ended in two wins for the Courage.

The other semifinal will be between the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns. The visiting team and lower seed will be the Thorns, who have a pair of Heels among their ranks.

Defender Meghan Klingenberg has played in all but one of Portland’s matches this season, and started all of the ones she did play. The other Tar Heel is Tobin Heath, who will play a big part in trying to break down a Chicago defense that has allowed just two goals in their last five games.

The lone UNC alumn on the other side of that matchup is Brooke Elby, who plays for Chicago. Elby is mostly used off the bench for the second place Red Stars.

Both semifinals are played this Sunday, while the final will be the following Sunday on the 27th. If you want to check out the former Tar Heels in action, both games will be airing on ESPN2. The Courage and Reign will kick things off at 1:30 PM ET, with the Red Stars and Thorns immediately following that, kicking off at 3:30.

No matter what happens, at least one Heel will be taking home another women’s soccer championship, keeping on the long legacy of UNC success in the sport.