USC coach Ali Khosroshahin talks about one of the loves of his life as you would expect anyone so deeply entrenched in a committed relationship to speak of it. This love, Khosroshahin said, “put a bounce in my step, brought a smile to my face.” And it has captured him for as long as he can remember.
“One of my first memories is arguing with my mom to let me stay up and watch a soccer match, even though it was supposed to be my naptime,” Khosroshahin said.
Khosroshahin is in love with his sport. His passion is visible — be it on the field coaching or in the office slaving over depth charts, recruits and set plays at the end of a 12-hour day.
So it should come as no surprise that the team’s most recent season is not an easy one for him to talk about. Ranked No. 25 to start the year, the USC women’s soccer team went just 7-13 overall and 4-7 in the rugged Pac-12. At one point, it lost eight straight. And eight of its 13 losses came by a mere one-goal margin.
“This has been the most difficult season of my coaching career,” Khosroshahin said without hesitation before the Women of Troy’s season finale — a 5-2 loss to No. 2 UCLA. “It’s been difficult; it’s been challenging. Most of all, it’s been hard to see the kids suffer. It’s made me feel absolutely helpless at times.”
After a slow 0-3 start, it seemed the Women of Troy had gotten back on track when they ran off three straight victories to even their record at 3-3. Then, the season took a nosedive. They outplayed No. 2 Oklahoma State but fell 1-0. They blew a lead in the last 10 minutes to Texas at home before losing in double overtime. Portland, Washington State, Oregon State in overtime, Oregon: all one-goal losses.
But they did turn things around to some degree, winning four of their last six games, including an emotional 1-0 victory over Arizona on Senior Day.
But Khosroshahin is aware of, and even talks openly about, the expectations of all athletic programs at USC, where 7-13 and no postseason just doesn’t cut it.
“This type of season is something this school hasn’t seen before,” Khosroshahin says. “And I haven’t either. It’s out of character for both of us.”
It’s the first time in Khosroshahin’s five-year tenure with USC that his squad will sit out the postseason, and the first time since 2004 that a Khosroshahin-coached team will not be seen in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps most shockingly, it’s the program’s first losing season since 1992.
Soccer is deeply entrenched into Khosroshahin’s background.
A native of Iran, Khosroshahin says when he moved to Logan, Utah, at age six, he knew two phrases in English: “hello” and “shut up.”
“You aren’t going to make any friends saying just ‘hello’ and ‘shut up’ to people,” Khosroshahin said with a laugh. “And I needed to make some friends. Soccer was the thing that allowed me to be accepted.”
Khosroshahin played competitively at Cal State Los Angeles for coach Leo Cuéllar, a man Khosroshahin speaks of with incredible reverence.
“Leo has been my biggest mentor, my teacher, my father, my big brother,” Khosroshahin said. “He’s been everything in my career for me. He saw something in me as a coach. As soon as I finished playing for him, he hired me. Right out of school.”
After a short time under Cuéllar, Cal State Fullerton called and offered him a job as an assistant.
“It was for a pay cut, they had no benefits. I was gonna turn the position down,” Khosroshahin said. “And I went and I spoke with Leo and told him I got this offer. I felt like I had so much more to learn from him. But when I told him that Fullerton had called, he said, ‘You have to go.’”
It caught him by surprise.
“My first reaction was, ‘What have I done wrong?’” Khosroshahin said. “But he said, ‘Ali, this is an opportunity you can’t pass.’ It was jumping from Division-II to Division-I. So I went.”
Khosroshahin was quickly put in charge of the women’s program at Fullerton, and in 2001 took the program to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
The program progressed year-by-year, and in 2005, Fullerton knocked off USC in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“I remember looking across the field and looking at their players,” Khosroshahin said. “And just thinking, ‘Wow, give me a chance with those players. Let me show what I can really do.’ I remember that vividly.”
Down 1-0 at halftime, the Titans scored three goals in the second half to advance to the Sweet 16.
“It was, at that point, one of the highlights of my coaching career, to beat USC,” Khosroshahin said.
His whole career, Khosroshahin had been the little man: David, forced to deal with Goliaths like USC.
“But I felt like we had done everything we could do [at Fullerton],” Khosroshahin said. “And for whatever reason I checked ’SC’s website after the season was over and I saw the position was open. I picked up the phone and left a message.”
When Khosroshahin found out he got the job, he said he fell down to his knees while on the phone with former associate athletic director Steve Lopes, unable to control himself.
“And then we came in here in 2007 and did something special,” Khosroshahin said with a hint of nostalgia.
The Women of Troy won the national championship in 2007, playing five of their six games on the road.
Khosroshahin talks quite fondly of how his team went to watch the West Virginia men’s team in their tournament game before a scheduled Elite Eight matchup against the Mountaineers’ women’s team.
“We get to the stadium, in all our USC gear, and everyone starts booing us,” Khosroshahin recalls. “And it was the coolest feeling.”
That is Ali Khosroshahin in a nutshell. He loves competition. He thrives off of it. After USC went up 2-0 in the national championship game over Florida State, he said he was yelling louder than anyone in the stadium. Not cheering, but yelling — at his players.
“I wasn’t about to let anyone think the game was over,” he said.
Khosroshahin yells a lot when he coaches. How he is not completely hoarse at the end of games is a great mystery. But he is not yelling at his players. He is yelling to them.
“One of the biggest misconceptions of me is that my passion for the game comes across as anger,” Khosroshahin says. “When I’m yelling on the sideline, I’m teaching. My players hear information.”
That’s how Khosroshahin describes himself as a coach: “a teacher.”
“Coaching has always been a part of what I do,” Khosroshahin says. “I was coaching high school while I was playing at Fullerton. For whatever reason, the kids have always seemed to listen to me.”
But even as a teacher, this season’s trials have taught him plenty.
“Life is about experiences,” Khosroshahin reflects. “It’s about what you do with those experiences and how you react to them.”
The same could be said for soccer.