When dozens of countries met to compete against each other in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in August, four women from USC’s soccer team played under two different flags.
Redshirt sophomore midfielder Savannah DeMelo, freshman forward Penelope Hocking and sophomore forward/defender Tara McKeown competed for the U.S. team at the tournament, hosted in France, which is open to women under the age of 20. Freshman defender Ashley Soto was also called up to play for Mexico’s U-20 National Team.
For Soto, the strong bond with her teammates at USC helped her develop cohesion with the other players on the national team.
“We really emphasize team building and team unity on the field and off the field,” Soto said. “Especially with the trust, we play as a team. I think that the ‘us’ part really means that we have to trust in each other and the team before other things.”
While neither U.S. nor Mexico won the trophy, which went to Japan, the Women of Troy said that playing with the U-20 National Team was an unforgettable experience.
“I was able to play not just 60-minute games — I could play all 90 [minutes], and that was huge for my role with the national team,” DeMelo said.
Hocking added that she had no idea she could play for the national team, as her previous experiences have been solely with club soccer.
“Last year in February I got invited and then I did not do well at all,” Hocking said. “Right before I came here I got the opportunity to play again with the national team and that has really prepared me for this, playing in the college level.”
Playing soccer on two teams is not always easy. To stay on top of their academics, the four athletes focus on time management and utilize mandatory study hours. They have also faced physical challenges from having to practice for the USC team as well as prepare for national competitions.
DeMelo, who attended the 2016 U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea but injured her knee in the months leading up to the tournament, said that she struggled to accept the times she did not achieve the success she aimed for.
“I knew that going into it I wasn’t going to have a role that I necessarily wanted to, but that I was still part of the team, and I knew that every player on the team counts,” DeMelo said.
They attribute much of their chemistry to head coach Keidane McAlpine’s teaching methods both on and off the field.
“As much as I push them, I don’t want to be so on top of them that they don’t feel like they can just play,” McAlpine said. “I have to trust them to do their own thing.”
McKeown said that McAlpine’s coaching methods have improved the way she plays.
“He tells you straight up what you need to be doing to be able to play,” McKeown said.
Now that the U-20 Women’s World Cup has come to an end, the four athletes are focusing on what’s ahead; playing their best with USC’s soccer team and getting good grades.
“It’s been amazing especially for our whole team this year,” McKeown said. “We are like one unit and working together every day.”