By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Steve Swanson has focused this summer on preparing the University of Virginia women’s soccer team for the coming season. Next summer, his attention is likely to be split.
Swanson, whose record in 11 seasons at UVa is 153-61-3, recently was named head coach of the United States’ Under-20 team. If that team fares as well as expected at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in early 2012, it will compete next August at the World Cup in Uzbekistan.
“There’s only three world championships on the women’s side: the 17s, the 20s, and the full team,” Swanson said. “So to be considered, I feel very fortunate and very honored and very privileged.”
The World Cup schedule is not ideal for a college coach, and Swanson probably will have to leave his UVa team in the hands of assistant coaches Ron Raab and Kerry Dziczkaniec for at least part of next summer.
“I’m thankful that I have an administration that sees it the same way that I do,” Swanson said, “that this is an opportunity to grow. In essence, I’m taking two jobs on to learn more and to grow more, and I’m fortunate to have assistants like Kerry and Ron to be able to hand it over to.”
April Heinrichs, Swanson’s predecessor as UVa coach, is now the women’s technical director for U.S. Soccer. Heinrichs’ “vision and her long-term commitment to the development of our sport on the women’s side is inspiring,” Swanson said when his selection was announced this month.
Swanson has deep roots in U.S. Soccer. He’s a former head coach of the Under-16 and Under-18 women’s national teams and has been an assistant on the U-17, U-18 and U-20 squads.
Before accepting the offer to become U-20 head coach, he discussed with UVa athletics administrators Craig Littlepage, Jon Oliver and Jane Miller the challenges his dual duties would present. The University’s president, Teresa Sullivan, also was consulted, Swanson said.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity,” said Swanson, who also has been head coach at Dartmouth (1990-95) and Stanford (1996-99).
“As a player I always wanted to get better. I have a real appetite for learning, and as a coach I’m no different. And I think this is an opportunity for me personally as a coach to grow, and it’s an opportunity for our whole staff to grow and for our players to grow. I’m looking at it from the educational aspect: Can we all improve? And again, it’s an honor to coach your country, and it’s a privilege to do that.”
Had the next U-20 World Cup been scheduled for, say, October or November 2012, Swanson said, that “would have been real problematic. It’s in August, so there will be some overlap, but it’s not going to [extend far into UVa’s season].”
Virginia freshman Morgan Brian is already a member of the U-20 team. Her much-anticipated college debut comes Friday at 7:30 p.m., when 10th-ranked UVa opens the season against No. 13 West Virginia at Klöckner Stadium.
Preceding the women’s game will be the UVa men’s final exhibition, against George Mason at 5 p.m.
Brian, a 5-7 midfielder, was the Gatorade national high school player of the year last season, and she displayed her dazzling array of talents in UVa’s two exhibition games this month, scoring a team-high three goals.
“I think what separates Morgan from a lot of players is not only her skills, but her brain,” Swanson said. “She’s got an exceptional soccer mind, and she’s consistently looking for ways to attack teams on the offensive end. She’s got a rare combination of being able to do it herself and also combine with others. She’s really kind of got an assassin’s mind. If you give her space anywhere around the box, she’ll make you pay. And it might not necessarily be that she scores. She’ll set somebody up. She’s smart enough to do that.
“The other thing is, she works hard on both sides of the ball. She’s an honest player. She’s not just an offensive player. She’s got a rare ability to combine a lot of different factors, a lot of different ingredients that make up an exceptional soccer player on both sides of the ball.”
In the Wahoos’ first exhibition, they lost 7-5 to defending NCAA champion Notre Dame in Maple City, Mich. Three days later, in Charlottesville, UVa blasted George Mason 5-0. Swanson’s veterans include forwards Lauren Alwine, Caroline Miller and Gloria Douglas, forward/midfielder Erica Hollenberg, defender/midfielder Maggie Kistner, defender Morgan Stith and goalie Chantel Jones, a sixth-year senior.
“I’m very excited about this team,” Swanson said. “We certainly aren’t all put together yet, in terms of our understanding our roles and what it is to be a team yet, on both sides of the ball, which is natural this time of year. We have a great ability to handle the ball, and I think that’s exciting. I think all the first-years are very technical, and they add a lot to the team in terms of their skill on the ball.
“The last two weeks I’ve seen a real ability to move the ball and to create chances. We have to be able to do that consistently against the best teams. The good thing is, even though we gave up seven goals [against Notre Dame], which was disconcerting, all those goals were actually things that I feel we can correct easily on our part … But now we have to get a little better on the defensive side of the ball, and we have to be a little more consistent over 90 minutes.”
Virginia’s second game is Sunday night against Richmond at Klöckner. The ‘Hoos will play eight games before opening conference play against Maryland, Sept. 15 in Charlottesville.
The ACC, as usual, is loaded with powerful teams. In the annual preseason poll of the conference’s coaches, UVa was picked to finish fourth in the ACC.
“It’s a real challenge, and you have to be exceptionally strong physically, you have to be exceptionally resilient mentally, and you have to be organized and a together team to be successful in our conference,” Swanson said.