The USC women’s soccer team, fresh off a sweep of its two-game home stand, heads to Oklahoma for the first time this weekend as it faces No. 24 Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. But this is a much different USC team that is making this trip than anyone expected at the start of the season.
The Women of Troy (3-3), No. 8 in the preseason national rankings, were supposed to travel to Oklahoma State (5-2), who lost only one game last year, this weekend for a battle of top-10 teams.
Junior midfielder Ashli Sandoval, the team’s leading point-scorer last season, was supposed to be the next big star for the Women of Troy, the 2007 national champions. Senior All-American Meagan Holmes was ready to have a full, healthy season and anchor USC’s backline.
But the Women of Troy have struggled thus far this season. Sandoval tore her ACL against Gonzaga on Friday and is out for the season, and Holmes is still nursing a knee injury. The injuries, combined with the lack of experience from a young team and the loss of key seniors from last season, have caused USC to come out of the gate much slower than anticipated and have left a void in the leadership role on the team.
“It just takes time. A lot of these kids are doing things we haven’t asked them to do,” coach Ali Khosroshahin said. “I think they’re coming along, slowly, but they’re coming along.”
USC showed signs of improvement last weekend as it beat two non-conference opponents to get back to .500. Khosroshahin said the second half of Sunday’s game was the best half of soccer he’s seen from the team this season. But there are still areas the team needs to improve on. He changed practice this week to emphasize one-touch ball movement and reading plays, rather than reacting to them.
“We just need to think faster, play quicker and just be more aware of what’s happening,” Khosroshahin said. “I hope we’re taking care of the ball and limiting our mental mistakes.”
Sandoval and Holmes’ injuries have taken a big toll on the team as USC tries to replace them in the backline (Sandoval played defense in place of Holmes this season). In Sunday’s game, USC had just one player who saw significant minutes last year, junior Karter Haug in the backline.
“It’s been difficult because a lot of us are fresh and new this season,” sophomore defender Chelsea Buehning said Sunday. “But Karter’s been doing an awesome job in the middle, and we’re all just taking our own responsibilities and pulling it together.”
With all the new players in the back, the Women of Troy have struggled at times to find chemistry and build an attack.
“Last year, we liked to play out of the back and knock it and dribble out of the back. But this year, we still have a target on our back, so a lot of teams have three forwards which means we’re playing one versus one a lot of the time,” sophomore defender Claire Schloemer said.
The USC backline has been getting better in distributing balls to the attacking players. But while the forwards have been getting plenty of shots, they need to be more efficient around the net.
Last weekend the Women of Troy had a combined 41 shots and only scored four goals in the two games. With away games against ranked Oklahoma State and an improved Oklahoma (4-2-1) that’s already won more games this season than all of last year, USC can’t afford to let chances go by the wayside.
“We need to take care of our opportunities and be really aggressive in the box,” junior forward Megan Ohai said. “When we have those chances we have to take them because we don’t know how many we are going to get.”
USC is finally starting to look like the team many thought they would be. But with the injuries and the inexperience on the field, Khosroshahin stresses that the team just needs time.