Women of Troy must overcome inexperience to return to championship form

Five years ago, nine freshmen walked onto the USC campus as members of the women’s soccer team.

Over the next four years, they took a mediocre program and established it as one of the best collegiate women’s soccer programs in the nation. The highlight, of course, was the national championship that those nine women brought to USC in 2007 for the first time.

But now, six of those talented players have graduated, including three All-Americans in Janessa Currier, Amy Rodriguez and Ashley Nick. Only three fifth-year seniors, Meagan Holmes, Marihelen Tomer and Brittany Massro, remain from the best recruiting class in USC history. But make no mistake, even with the departure of those key players, the Women of Troy will be focused on reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fifth-time in a row while contending for a national championship in 2009.

“All of [last year’s seniors] had really big impacts on the team and you can’t replace that,” Holmes said. “But the incoming class has great potential and they bring a lot of experience. They will be a great addition.”

The Women of Troy do return seven starters, including senior goalkeeper Kristen Olsen. Olsen has proved to be one of the best goalkeepers in the nation, as she was recently named to the Watch List for the MAC Hermann Trophy, which is given out at the end of the year to the top women’s collegiate player. Olsen has a program-best 0.55 goals against average, and with 20 career shutouts, she just needs six more to become USC’s all-time leader in that category.

“It’s an honor to be nominated and looked at, but I just will take it game-by-game. There’s not any added pressure,” Olsen said.

Having played with Olsen for four years, Holmes knows that she’s more than deserving of the award.

“She plays a huge role for our team,” Holmes said of Olsen. “She’s one of the top ranked goalkeepers, if not the best, in the nation. She comes up with big saves every game and she has to perform this year.”

Olsen will need to rely on all of her experience as she anchors a backline that lost two four-year starters in Currier and Stacey Strong. Sophomores Claire Schloemer and Chelsea Buehning will replace the departed seniors, and the veteran All-American Holmes will provide key leadership to the relatively young defense.

“It’s hard because over the past four years, you develop a good relationship with the backline girls. But the girls coming in have picked it up very quickly and it’s easy to them to step in once they have learned the system,” Holmes said.

On the offensive side, the Women of Troy lost the leading goal-scorer in Rodriguez, but they return points leader junior midfielder Ashli Sandoval and second-leading goal scorer, junior midfielder Alyssa Dávila. Sophomore Ashley Freyer will be counted on more as she scored four goals off the bench last year, and junior Megan Ohai, who played with the U.S. Under-23 U.S. National Team in Europe this summer, will more than make up for Rodriguez’s absence.

“The way we play, the ball gets spread around really well. Last year, we had a lot of people that had multiple goal games. So there will be a leading scorer, but everyone will contribute,” coach Ali Khosroshahin said.

Those players expected to contribute include three freshmen, defender Kelly Morgan, midfielder Courtney Garcia, and forward Samantha Johnson. Morgan and Johnson saw minutes in USC’s first game, a 3-0 loss at Texas A&M, and Khosroshahin knows that he just has to give the freshmen and new starters a little bit of time to adjust to their new roles.

“We need to give the new kids time to get experience. We have to be patient and understand there will be some growing paints. But once they get their opportunities, in the long run it will be fantastic,” Khosroshahin said.

With seven starters returning, and three freshmen and multiple sophomores expecting to contribute much more than they have last season, the Women of Troy have something that can counter the loss of the talented seniors: depth.

“The first time we scrimmage, the starting team and the players on the bench were even,” Olsen said. “It’s a good thing to have, because if someone gets injured, we haven’t suffered from the loss.”

A couple of years ago, the Women of Troy flew under the radar and won the national title. But with that title comes a target, and even though they are one-year removed from that championship, they know they still are circled on many opposing teams’ calendars.

“Now we have expectations and standards we have to perform to,” Holmes said.

The Women of Troy hope they fulfill those expectations, and bring in another national title.