England’s Eurostars have grown in the US system

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Anson Dorrance can’t keep up with all the news. There are emails from the media and texts from friends. Newspaper clippings and interviews. It’s all about the same thing: The England women’s national team wins Euro 2022.

Dorrance coached four players involved with that team, including manager Sarina Weigman. But he’s not the only American college coach to have overseen the winning team’s development. A total of six members of the Three Lions team attended a university in the United States. And when England lifted the trophy after beating Germany 2-1, their former coaches were very proud. And despite the fact that the players have made their names across the pond, the collegiate bond remains strong.

“It’s more than rewarding. It’s just intoxicating. I’m on cloud nine,” said Dorrance.

England drew on a key contingent of former US college students throughout the tournament. Lucy Bronze, Alessia Russo, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Weigman visited North Carolina. Full-back Rachel Daly played as a forward for St. John’s. Demi Stokes was an attacking force in South Florida before turning pro at left-back with Manchester City.

All six played a role for an England side winning their first major trophy – whether at the men’s or women’s level – since 1966. Weigman was the first manager to win the European Cup for two different countries. Bronze started every game at right-back. Daly was just as reliable and held the place at left-back until the final.

And although their old coaches were watching from afar, the final brought back memories of old times: wins and injuries, success and failure. But ultimately players who were a pleasure to be here and who totally deserved the success.

“These are a bunch of graceful, positive people,” Dorrance said. “What a great story for the English.”

Dorrance loved coaching Bronze. The Northumberland native was fierce and competitive – a relentlessly hard-working full-back. He recalls a 1v1 tournament pitting Bronze against USWNT forward Tobin Heath. Bronze was 17, defending a 21-year-old who would go on to become a two-time world champion. She equalized early 1-1, but Heath took over and won 10-2. It’s an episode that Bronze still thinks about to this day.

“[Bronze] I saw these great players and they all competed against each other,” said Dorrance. “Steel sharpens steel.”

Bronze spent a year at Chapel Hill and won a national championship before departing. But in early 2010, she returned to a country that didn’t easily embrace her fighting spirit. Coaches have been put off by her way of thinking, Dorrance said, encouraging her to calm down.

“The coaches were so scared of their competitiveness. They wanted her to calm down a little because they were so scared all the girls on the list would quit,” Dorrance said

12 years later, Bronze is a national hero.

Russo was similarly successful in North Carolina. She quickly found a goal-shooting rhythm for the Tar Heels, scoring nine goals as a freshman. But Dorrance remembers her more for her positive influence within the team. Russo suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2018 that rules her out for the season. After the game, she texted Alex Kimball, her No. 9 backup, encouraging her to take on the role and further her dream of being drafted into the NWSL.

“What people just don’t understand about Alessia, despite all our football fame, is what sets her apart, her humanity and her character,” Dorrance said.

Russo and Wubben-Moy eventually left UNC early, encouraged by Dorrance and his staff to pursue pro opportunities in the Women’s Super League. Russo signed a professional contract with Manchester United while Wubben-Moy returned to her youth club Arsenal. 8 weeks later, Russo was named WSL Player of the Month. Wubben-Moy, meanwhile, has settled in the XI for an Arsenal side that finished second in the league.

“Of course we’re incredibly proud of that because we’re very proud of our ability to prepare these kids to play professionally,” Dorrance said.

Daly came to St. John’s at a difficult point in her career. As a youngster she was part of the England youth national teams but had fallen out of favor in recent years. Their confidence has occasionally lacked, said St John’s head coach Ian Stone. He also had a position problem. Daly was incredibly versatile and had yet to find a proper spot on the court where she could unleash her potential.

Stone’s solution was to use her as the absolute number 9 – radically different from the full back cover she often played as a kid. The position change worked. Daly scored 50 goals in 60 games for Red Storm, becoming one of the most successful players in the program’s history.

After college, Stone went through the NWSL teams and campaigned for Daly’s admission. She was an obvious draft pick, clearly talented enough to play at the top US level. Finding the right fit wasn’t that easy, though. A chat with Houston Dash coach Danny Waldrum settled things. Stone emphasized her competitiveness, guile, and occasionally outspoken manner with teammates. Coach Waldrum welcomed it.

“All the greats are like that,” he told Stone.

Daly quickly found form in the American professional game and established herself as a reliable goalscorer for Houston. For England, however, she slipped to her old place in the left backcourt. And at the European Championships, she shone, helping a strong defense limit some of Europe’s best attacking sides.

“I was just so proud of her and also of how far she’s come in her development as a very complete player,” Stone said.

South Florida coach Denise Schilte-Brown knew Demi Stokes deserved an appearance in England. The defenseman played for the Bulls and picked up back-to-back all-conference selections. She regularly attended training camps in England and placed first in all fitness tests. She was a good teammate, voice leader and diligent coach. But from 2011 to 2013, Stokes stayed in South Florida. For the South Shields native, it was a chance to connect, Schilte-Brown said. The two spent the holidays together as Stokes rarely traveled home.

“She was more than a player to me, she was like a family member,” said Schilte-Brown.

As the months went by, Stokes continued to improve on the pitch. She became a better one-on-one defender and also more dangerous in attack. She was an advisor to younger squad members and a key part of a Bulls squad that played in an NCAA tournament.

Then the call finally came. In 2014, Stokes split her time between South Florida and England, training with the first team and earning a handful of caps along the way. She still had 18 starts this season, including all 90 minutes of the Bulls’ NCAA tournament matchup against Illinois State.

“I’m really proud of [Stokes]. I’m really inspired by her. And I hope she continues to pave the way for young girls,” said Schilte-Brown.

All former US college players are still in touch with their coaches. Daly and Stone exchange messages about every month. Schilte-Brown will always call Demi Stokes after milestones. But the strongest connection might be with Russo’s father, Mario.

He sends Dorrance and his staff every single news clip featuring his daughter or the England team. For the past four weeks, the UNC inbox has been inundated with front page images and rave reviews in the media. Whenever they came through, the school re-released them as part of a bulk email: one that players receive every week.

It’s those kinds of connections, those connections that bind players intimately to the coaches, programs and playing fields that they have developed.

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