The No. 9 overall USC women’s soccer team will host Cal State Fullerton to open up postseason play at home Saturday after a 14-4-1 regular season earned it a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Trojans finished 7-4 in Pac-12 play to finish third in the conference, losing their regular season finale to UCLA in a battle for second place last week. USC’s four losses have all come in conference play, as it has dropped games to Stanford, Cal, Washington and UCLA — all quality opponents.
Heading into the weekend, the Trojans will be affected by injuries, as they have throughout the season. Star junior forward Tara McKeown has been out since USC played Oregon State Nov. 3 and will be questionable against CSUF, but senior midfielder Jalen Woodward, who has been out since the end of October, will make her return.
McKeown’s potential absence may hurt USC offensively. Sophomore forward Penelope Hocking is likely to carry a heavier load to make up for her absence.
Fullerton, on the other hand, took care of a weaker schedule to finish 14-2-4 on the season, but USC will be the toughest team it has faced all year. The Titans snagged an NCAA Tournament bid thanks to their undefeated conference record and Big West Tournament Championship.
As major underdogs, the Titans will come in ready to fight and will play with a chip on their shoulder. They have already faced a few elimination games and have had the opportunity to develop their playoff mentality — high stakes the Trojans have not faced this season.
“We need to make sure that we match the intensity of a team that’s already a tournament champion,” USC head coach Keidane McAlpine said. “They actually have the advantage in that regard.”
Fullerton’s offense has been carried by senior forwards Maddie Bennett and Atlanta Primus, who have 12 and 11 goals on the season, respectively.
“They are a very over-the-top, go-at-you kind of team,” redshirt junior goalie Kaylie Collins said. “They don’t want to really possess around and keep the game slow. They want a high-tempo kind of game, which we also enjoy doing.”
McAlpine also added that the Trojans have to be more “refined” in what they do to improve their play and that CSUF will present challenges on both sides of the ball.
“They are very, very good on set pieces, especially corners,” he said. “They do a great job in their defensive organization in terms of their pressing, and they get numbers into the box.”
Collins and her solid backline will look to slow the two offensive standouts and potentially add a ninth shutout to the team’s resume. Fortunately, the defense may at least have a sense for Fullerton’s offensive approach because the Trojans also rely on a dynamic offensive pair in McKeown and Hocking to handle their scoring.
Regardless of the Titans’ strategy this game, the Trojans will look to overwhelm them with their firepower and elite talent. Both McAlpine and Collins emphasized the importance of USC playing the way they want to play.
“We are trying to focus more on ourselves,” Collins said about the team’s mentality heading into the game. “Coming in as the two seed, that gives you kind of a confidence boost I think, because you are playing a team that might have not had as a good season as you or that kind of thing. Honestly it’s just about going in and being able to play our game.”
The 64-team field in the NCAA Tournament is shaping up to be another highly competitive and intense postseason. The Pac-12 will receive strong representation as usual, with eight teams qualifying for the postseason. Four of those teams received a top-four seed in their bracket. No. 2 Stanford, which is coming off yet another Pac-12 Championship, earned a one seed while USC and UCLA both received No. 2 spots.
USC will be in the same quadrant as the ACC champion and No. 2 overall team in the nation, North Carolina, as well as No. 13 Oklahoma State and No. 15 Texas Tech.
In recent years, USC has seen success and plenty of heartbreak in the postseason. In 2016, the Trojans were able to win the national championship, but 2017 and 2018 have featured two tragic losses decided by penalty kicks.
This Saturday marks the beginning of USC’s hunt for its third national championship. If the Trojans want to avoid a third straight year of heartbreak, the team must come together to defeat a stacked tournament field starting Saturday.