When All-American third team junior midfielder Savannah Demelo suffered a season-ending injury this past offseason, the USC women’s soccer team suddenly had a gaping hole in its offensive unit. Demelo was third on the team in points last season with 28, so one question loomed large over USC’s season: Who would step up in her place?
The answer so far has undoubtedly been junior forward Tara McKeown, who is currently having a dream season for the No. 2-ranked Trojans. With 7 goals and six assists in just seven games, McKeown is on an offensive tear that has provided a much-needed spark to the Trojan offense, especially in key wins against tough teams like Florida State and Florida.
McKeown has partnered up with sophomore forward Penelope Hocking, who led the team in points last season, to account for a total of 35 points this season — over half of the team’s total points. McKeown attributes their on-field success to their relationship off the pitch.
“Before she even got here as a freshman, we had the opportunity to play together with the U20 World Cup team and since then, we’ve been close,” McKeown said. “We were able to develop a connection off the field first.”
McKeown also has a close bond with junior midfielder Alea Hyatt, who has played with her since they were 7 years old. That was about the time that McKeown first began to play at a higher level while on a club team.
“I started playing when I was around 4,” McKeown said. “When I was 6 or 7, my first club coach saw me at AYSO and asked me to come out for his team, and once I started that I’ve [played] club ever since.”
To some, McKeown’s offensive outburst may seem like somewhat of a surprise. However, it’s hard to call this year a breakout. As a freshman and sophomore, McKeown was already impressive for the Trojans, starting 33 games total and recording 13 and 19 points, respectively.
McKeown’s rise to the spotlight and her increased offensive productivity can be partially attributed to one simple change. In her first two seasons at USC, McKeown was more of an outside back and had fewer chances to attack on the offensive end. However, this offseason, in the wake of injuries and graduating players, there was an open position at forward, which gave McKeown the opportunity to play at her most natural spot.
“When I was playing club I would play forward usually,” she said. “That was my main position until about like maybe the year before I came in [to USC]. I started playing more outside back because that’s what I was playing for the national team at the time.”
McKeown’s comfort on the attacking end can also be explained by her aggressive yet unselfish playing style. She noted that some of her strengths include her “vision and ability to not just score goals but help other people score goals.”
Her selfless attitude is also reflected in her willingness and ability to play a number of positions. By adapting so quickly from outside back to forward, McKeown demonstrates her elite versatility, which she says she developed as a young player.
“From a young age, my club coach always moved players around because he knew how important it was to be versatile,” McKeown said. “That’s where I learned to just go with the flow and play wherever my coach needs.”
As a result of her outstanding play, McKeown already has garnered national attention, recently being named the United Soccer Coaches National and Pac-12 Player of the Week. If she continues to play at her current pace, she should receive some serious consideration for the Pac-12 Player of the Year award, among other accolades.
However, McKeown isn’t focused on the individual spotlight as much as the team’s success.
“I can just do my best for each game and help my team win,” she said. “I don’t think it’s individual as much as a team goal we are trying to get to in the end.”
After college, McKeown said she hopes to continue to play as a professional, as she will declare for the National Women’s Soccer League draft when she graduates in 2021. Those hopes may certainly become a reality at the rate that she is progressing, and maybe one day, McKeown will play on the U.S. National Team.
For now though, McKeown is focusing on bringing USC its third national championship — and if she keeps playing the way she has been, the sky’s the limit for the Trojans.
USC will take on Baylor in Waco, Texas, Friday at 4:00 p.m.