Women’s soccer eases into NCAA Tournament second round

Despite the 1-0 scoreline, the Trojans dominated GCU from start to finish.

Junior midfielder Helena Sampaio capped off her sixth goal of the season in the 66th minute when she scored the Trojans’ game-winning penalty kick. (Bryce Dechert / Daily Trojan)

The curse has lifted. 

After losing two straight NCAA Tournament first round matchups against UC Irvine, one in her first season at USC and the other when she was an assistant at UCLA, Head Coach Jane Alukonis started to worry there was a hex on her teams.

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“I did a lot of work trying to understand how to break spells,” Alukonis said after the match with a chuckle. “I heard burning garlic or taking a bath in saltwater might clear those things.”

But with a 1-0 victory on home turf against Grand Canyon University (15-5-4, 5-1-3 Western Athletic Conference), Alukonis no longer has to trouble herself with the supernatural.

Despite co-leading the team in goals during the regular season, freshman forward Maribel Flores — the newly-crowned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year — did not start at her usual left wing spot. Junior forward Simone Jackson took that position instead, with junior forward Izzy Kimberly maintaining her spot at striker from the UCLA game a week ago.

The game’s one-goal margin belies the degree to which USC (11-4-3, 6-2-3 Pac-12) dominated the match from start to finish. From the opening whistle, it was immediately clear that the Trojans would maintain possession, and GCU would be left to scrounge for counterattacks.
“A big reason why we like to dominate possession is to try to tire out the opponent,” Alukonis said. “We would rather their forwards or attackers be running to chase the ball, when we have it in our possession, rather than when they have it and they’re running towards the goal.”

Even within the team’s possession structure, USC clearly wanted to be direct when the opportunity presented itself, especially with confident ball-players like junior midfielder Helena Sampaio and graduate defender Kayla Duran at centerback. Just six minutes into the match, Sampaio turned sharply in midfield and played a dangerous through-ball toward the on-running junior midfielder, Aaliyah Farmer. GCU’s junior goalkeeper DeAira Jackson swallowed up the ball before Farmer could take a touch, but it set the tone for USC’s attacking play.

Jackson registered USC’s first shot on target in the eighth minute with a well-taken strike inside GCU’s box after junior midfielder Simi Awujo dribbled past her defender and crossed the ball on the ground. The shot was true and low, but Jackson saved it comfortably. 

The Trojans kept a simmering pressure on GCU for the remainder of the half, particularly when Flores came off the bench and delivered a burst of energy. A minute after coming into the game, the Mexican youth international had a left-footed shot from the top of the box that troubled Jackson and deflected out for a USC corner. 

Despite tallying five shots and five corners in the first half, the first 45 minutes ended scoreless. USC had avoided conceding an early-game goal like it suffered against Irvine the previous season, but victory wasn’t guaranteed yet.

USC fans didn’t have to wait too long before the Trojans broke the deadlock. 

After Kimberly drew contact in the GCU box, the referee awarded the Trojans a penalty, which set piece maestro Sampaio converted in the 66th minute. The Brazilian midfielder placed the ball firmly into the bottom left corner, with Jackson diving the other way.

When the ball hit the back of the net, and Sampaio went to celebrate with Kimberly, she had no doubt what the result would be. 

“I was just happy,” Sampaio said, “because I knew as soon as we scored, we were going to win the game, didn’t matter what.”

Up a goal with the dominant possession play, USC played out the match largely without drama. The Lopes had no choice but to ramp up the pressure and had a couple of second-half corner kicks but never created a legitimately dangerous scoring opportunity. GCU finished the match with four shots total and only one on frame. 

If USC has one regret from the second half, the team perhaps would’ve preferred not to accrue so many yellow cards. In the 85th minute, Sampaio and sophomore goalkeeper Hannah Dickinson earned a booking, which, in different circumstances, could’ve led to a nervier finale in different circumstances.

Sampaio knew how important the game was to her team and approached it with a matching attitude. 

“My biggest mentality was just like, ‘We need to win this because I don’t want to lose in the first round again,’” Sampaio said. “There are many players that this could be their last game in college, so just playing for them and yeah, just playing with grit.”

USC, an eight seed, will play one-seed BYU in the second round in Provo, Utah. The Cougars defeated Utah State 2-0 in their first round game and had strong results against the Pac-12 this season, beating fellow one-seed UCLA 3-1 and Utah 6-1. The Trojans will have to find a way to keep a lid on BYU’s senior forward/midfielder Brecken Mozingo, a former Bruin who has 11 goals and 12 assists on the season. 

Alukonis has no doubt her team can advance further in this tournament. 

“There’s just no arguing how talented we are,” Alukonis said. “It’s just a matter of making sure that we all hold that same belief, come close together, battle for each other, and make sure we turn up on the day and take care of ourselves on the days that aren’t game day.”

A win over BYU would give USC a prime opportunity to make a run at the College Cup semifinals held in Cary, North Carolina.  

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