NCAA tournament opener against Illinois in Women of Troy’s sights

It’s tournament time.

Stepping up · Freshman forward Elizabeth Eddy, who has started every game for USC this season, will be a key player against Illinois. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

The No. 22 USC women’s soccer team (12-5-3) is in South Bend, Ind., to take on No. 13 Illinois (13-4-1) in the first round of the 64-team NCAA tournament today at 2 p.m.

It is the Women of Troy’s sixth consecutive tournament appearance, and 12th in the last 13 years. USC won the championship in 2007 and made it to the third round in 2008.

Last season, USC lost in the first round to Oklahoma State on penalty kicks. It was its first opening round exit since 2003, and the only time the Women of Troy have lost in rounds one and two in USC coach Ali Khosroshahin’s tenure.

For Khosroshahin, it was his earliest tournament exit since his first year as a collegiate head coach at Cal State Fullerton in 2001.

This year, the opening round matchup will be intriguing, as there are some striking differences between the two teams. All but two of Illinois’ goals this year have come from assists, while USC has scored 11 goals unassisted. USC has forced more than 100 corner kicks this year, while Illinois has forced just 86. USC has been called for a foul 208 times this season and shown a yellow card 15 times. In contrast, Illinois has been whistled for just 129 fouls this season and has yet to be carded.

“They’re a very disciplined team,” Khosroshahin said. “They’re very organized and are very good with possession.”

Perhaps the biggest contrast is on the score sheet. Of the Fighting Illini’s 31 goals this season, 16 have come from just two players. Forward Megan Pawloski has five, and forward Vanessa DiBernardo has a staggering 11. Only two other players even have three.

Compare that to USC, where freshman forwards Elizabeth Eddy and Autumn Altamirano, along with redshirt junior midfielder Ashli Sandoval, are tied for the team lead with just five goals each. Overall, 11 players have found the back of the net multiple times for the Women of Troy, while only six Illini have scored more than once.

Though senior midfielder Alyssa Dávila admitted that Illinois plays “almost an opposite formation” from the Women of Troy, she said USC will be ready.

“We’re prepared; we’ve been working on defending it,” Dávila said. “We’re ready to go.”

Despite — or perhaps because of — the differences, Khosroshahin’s focus is on his team.

“It’s not so much about preparing for Illinois as it is doing what we do better, sharper, faster and more efficient,” he said. “Hopefully everything that we’ve done throughout the season has prepared us for this. Everything should all be coming together now.”

The single elimination nature of the tournament is something that Khosroshahin particularly wants his players to understand.

“Win or go home,” he said. “We’ve been trying to pound it into their heads. They need to understand the stakes.”

For seniors Dávila, defender Karter Haug and forward Megan Ohai, that just provides extra motivation.

“Our time is out after this,” Dávila said. “We want to go out with a bang.”

This senior class won the national championship as freshmen, and the current freshmen would love to follow in their footsteps.

“I’ve been waiting a whole long time for this,” Eddy said. “I’m really excited. Everything we’ve done this whole year has been to prepare us for the tourney.”

Khosroshahin’s keys to the game, like his preparation, is unchanged for the tournament.

“Maintain discipline defensively and take care of the ball,” he said. “Same at the end of the season as it was at the beginning. We do those two things and our chances are very good.”