As both teams trudged off the field after the first half of the NCAA semifinal in Avaya Stadium on Friday, the Trojans looked as if they might be facing the end of their run in the tourney.
From the start, Georgetown possessed. In the first seconds of the game, a forward took a hard shot that barely went wide and into the side netting. The tone was set from there. With well-structured attacks and an uptempo pace, the Hoyas put the Trojans back on their heels.
The stat card reflected the frustration of the half — the Trojans earned six fouls and took only one shot. Georgetown, meanwhile, leveled five shots at goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme, forcing her to make sliding saves off her line to keep the Trojans alive.
But in the locker room, head coach Keidane McAlpine told his players to do one thing — breathe.
“We were on our back foot for most of the first half,” McAlpine said. “Second half, we caught our breath and found a way to get back in the game.”
Maybe it was a rousing halftime speech, or endurance, or just the sheer chemistry of the team. But in the second half, the Trojans exploded with their typical intensity, spreading the field wide and carving up the Georgetown defense.
The increase in energy made the difference as USC went on to win 1-0, advancing to the College Cup final for the first time since the program won it all in 2007. The Trojans will face West Virginia for the championship on Sunday.
It wasn’t a dominant second half for either team. But the Trojans began to string together set pieces and thoughtful attacks, maintaining long chunks of possession that provided movement and allowed flank players to stretch the field. All that USC needed was one moment to change the course of the game.
That spark came in the 59th minute, when senior midfielder Morgan Andrews passed a ball from the right flank to Johnson, who had backed her defender up only feet away from the goal. Redshirt senior forward Johnson took a touch to her right, turned and slotted a shot into the left corner. The ball flew too wide and low for the keeper to ever have a chance at making the save.
It happened so fast that Johnson, laughing, admitted afterwards that she couldn’t remember much of the play herself. But with 20 minutes left in the game, the Trojans took a lead that they held steadily until the final whistle.
The lead put the Trojans back in control, a position they’ve become comfortable in throughout this season. This USC squad isn’t used to losing — after dropping its first two games of the season, the Trojans made a decision as a team to relentlessly refuse to accept anything besides victory.
Since then, they lost only two and tied two more, with Prudhomme setting the school record for shutouts on her way to becoming Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year. In most of those games, the front line crafted a dominant style of play that kept defenses on their heels and the ball far from Prudhomme’s line.
That wasn’t the case with Georgetown. Even after scoring their goal, the game remained back and forth at a brutal pace that forced both defenses to remain constantly on edge. But that brought out another edge of the USC team that has quietly aided this year’s high-scoring success — the wealth of talent in the backline.
The defense-focused game showcased Prudhomme and senior Pac-12 Defender of the Year Mandy Freeman. The pair slowed a Georgetown attack carrying all of the game’s momentum into the second half, disrupting passes and minimizing time spent in the goal box. And even into the final seconds, the senior leaders made sure their voices were heard as they rallied their defense to maintain the shut out.
“We played all the way to the last second,” Prudhomme said. “We didn’t want anyone losing their head for a minute, so for me I’m just constantly reassuring them that I’m behind them. You get caught up in a game, you just gotta keep talking.”
If past games are anything to go by, Sunday’s championship game against West Virginia will be similarly focused. The last six games of the tourney have ended in 1-0 scoresheets, including West Virginia’s late win over North Carolina earlier on Friday.
But if Sunday comes down to a battle of defenses, the Trojans can be confident in one thing — they’ll bring one of the best in the country to the field.