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UNC soccer: Looking back at the Tar Heels to have played in a Women’s World Cup Final

Several Heels have gotten a chance to play in World Cup finals over the years.

England v USA -World Cup Women Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images

With the United States the dominant force in world women’s soccer, and UNC a dominant force within the US, it’s not shocking that a lot of Tar Heels have played on the biggest stage in the sport.

This weekend will see the US women’s national team compete in a third-straight World Cup Final, and the fifth overall in team history. We’ll look at what to keep an eye on from a UNC perspective in this year’s edition later this week, but now let’s take a walk back through history. Here is a history of Tar Heels who’ve played in a Women’s World Cup Final.

The first ever Women’s World Cup was played in 1991. Between the fact that the Tar Heels had won several national championships in the years prior, and that the US coach was Anson Dorrance, that year’s team was full of Heels. Half of the 18 person roster played for Dorrance in Chapel Hill.

Six of those Tar Heels got the start in the final against Norway. The US won the match and the inaugural tournament with a 2-1 victory. Both goals were scored by Michelle Akers, who was not one of the Heels, however, the US held a Norway team who had scored 13 goals ahead of the final to just one, and several UNC players were integral in that. Linda Hamilton and Carla Werden started in defense while Shannon Higgs and Kristine Lilly played in midfield. April Heinrichs would go on to lift the trophy as captain, while the sixth and most famous was playing a bit of an unusual role in that final.

Mia Hamm famously played striker in her career. When he retired, he held the USWNT scoring record with 158 goals. Yet in that first final, she nominally played in defense.

There was actually one player on the losing side in the 1991 final. Norway’s Birthe Hegstad had played at UNC from 1985-88. She is the only former Tar Heel to have played for a non-US country in the final. England’s Lucy Bronze came close this year but lost in the semifinal to the US on Tuesday.

The US’s next final would come eight years later where Hamm, Lilly, and Werden were again in the starting lineup on that day in the Rose Bowl. Werden, who at this point was going by her married name of Carla Overbeck, had become the team captain. They were joined in the starting lineup by a fourth Tar Heel in 1999. Cindy Parlow was still four years away from even going to UNC in 1991, but by ‘99 she was out of college and started for the US on the big stage.

The match was scoreless through 90 minutes and went into extra time. Late on as things looked to be heading towards penalties, a fifth Heel was substituted on in the form of Tisha Venturini.

The game did indeed go to penalties. As you’re probably aware, the US eventually won, leading to the famous Brandi Chastain moment. Prior to that, Overbeck, Lilly, and Hamm all took and scored their penalties.

The lone final the US have ever lost was in 2011. Is it a coincidence that far fewer Tar Heels played in that final than the first two? Well, I’ll leave that up to you.

Heather O’Reilly was the lone UNC alumn to start the 2011 final against Japan, while Tobin Heath was brought on in extra time. The game went all the way to penalties, where Japan came out on top. Heath had the misfortune of missing her penalty, but she wasn’t alone as the US missed three of four.

However four years later, Heath would be in the starting lineup as the US got revenge against that Japan team to win the 2015 World Cup. In the second half, she became the first Tar Heel to score in a final, sending home the fifth goal in a 5-2 win. One other Heel made played in the game as Meghan Klingenberg started on the backline in the victory.

Based on lineups from throughout the tournament, there should be at least one former UNC player in the lineup on Sunday, and if they do, there’s a chance to further add to the Carolina women’s soccer legacy at the World Cup.