Consistency will be key for the women’s soccer team as the Trojans gear up for one of their last weekends of non-conference play against Loyola Marymount and North Carolina.
After sweeping the Auburn Classic with road victories over Georgia and Auburn last weekend, the team’s confidence is at its highest of the season. The Trojans started the tourney with a 3-0 victory against Georgia in the midst of smothering Southern heat, then grinded for a 2-0 win over Auburn two days later.
At the forefront of the Trojans’ success was redshirt senior Sammy Jo Prudhomme, who tallied nine saves against Georgia and eight against Auburn. This is Prudhomme’s second year as starting keeper, and head coach Keidane McAlpine believes this is the best he has seen her in her USC career.
“We’ve seen a whole new level from Sammy Jo this year,” McAlpine said. “She’s sharp and she’s continuously coming up with big saves when we need her game in and game out. This is the most locked in I’ve ever seen her.”
Prudhomme’s performance cemented a growing weekend for a young backline, which remained something of a question mark for McAlpine heading into both games in Georgia. Last year, his squad’s style of play was defined from the get-go — defense first, giving more time and breathing room to an offensive front line that often struggled to convert opportunities into points.
This year, that isn’t quite the case. A less-experienced defense has forced Prudhomme to step up as a vocal leader on the pitch to organize her line. At the same time, a fresh set of strikers have brought efficiency in finishing to the Trojans’ front line, resulting in higher scoring matches early in the season.
McAlpine has seen the team’s ratio of finishes to opportunities — known as a “strike rate” — drop to one-to-five or one-to-four so far this season. Last year, he would’ve placed that ratio closer to one-to-10.
“Last year we created a lot of chances, but this year we’re turning that into actual goals,” McAlpine said. “We’re seeing the chemistry in our partnerships form, and that’s helping us with growing and playing consistently as a unit.”
At this point, it comes down to chemistry and consistency on both sides of the ball. McAlpine’s squad has seen more depth of players scoring and creating opportunities in the box. Six different Trojans have found the back of the net so far, with redshirt junior Alex Anthony leading the team after 3 goals in three separate games.
This balanced attack is reassuring to McAlpine, but he feels that the team isn’t quite a finished product yet. His main goal is to develop a more consistent team that is more able to attack and pressure for a full 90 minutes.
“Right now, we’ll have that consistency for 15 or 20 minutes at a time,” McAlpine said. “And in those 15 or 20 minutes, we’ll look really good. But we’re not holding that level of play for an entire game, and we haven’t started our second halves well. Once we’re doing that, once we’re [playing] with that consistency, I think you’ll really see it start to come together.”
That consistency will be necessary in this upcoming weekend, particularly against a stacked No. 8 North Carolina team that has yet to give up a match this season. Last year, the teams faced off in a hard-fought match that ended in a 2-1 loss for the Trojans. But the game was considered a turning point for the 2015 season, after which the Trojans went on a six-game streak without a loss.
This year, however, the Trojans aren’t settling for anything but victory. North Carolina is esteemed as one of the great powerhouses of women’s collegiate soccer, but McAlpine feels that his strengthened frontline and veteran keeper have the confidence and energy level to match the Tar Heels. The high pressure game will be yet another barometer for McAlpine to test how ready his team is for this year’s regular season.
“Our energy level is up a lot the past few weeks,” McAlpine said. “I think the players feel good about the offense and several clean sheets in a row is giving them confidence. They know there’s things to work on, but they’re looking forward to this weekend. They know they can get in there and play with the best, and they’re going to have a good time with it.”