It's been a very long road for USC women's soccer, but on Saturday, they will make their big return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.
USC soccer finished the season with a record of 12-6-2 (6-5), good for a fourth place finish in the Pac-12, their highest since finishing third back in 2010. Sophomore defender Kayla Mills will likely become team MVP at the end-of-year banquet after being named to the All-Pac-12 first team, joining teammate Mandy Freeman as the second consecutive Trojan defender to make the list.
But now, this new resurgence under new coach Keidane McAlpine is about to undergo a serious test against a familiar foe, the Pepperdine Waves. Early this season, Pepperdine defeated USC 2-1 at McAlister Field, handing the Women of Troy their first loss of the season.
Both goals for the Waves came on rebound shots off corner kicks, so SC will have to make sure that set piece opportunities are held to a minimum. In terms of personnel, USC will have to keep an eye out for Pepperdine's senior forward Lynn Williams, who scored the game-winning goal in their previous encounter. Williams holds the Pepperdine school record for game-winning goals with 15, and her 37 overall career goals is second all-time in Waves' program history.
Since that win, Pepperdine has gone on to build a 15-2-3 record, finishing the season with a No. 11 national ranking and a spot as one of the tournament's seeded teams. This gives Pepperdine home field advantage through at least the first two rounds of the tournament. The Waves were 9-1 at home this year, with their only loss coming against San Diego on October 18.
But while this means USC is probably done playing at McAlister Field this year, that might be a good thing for them. The Trojans went 6-0-2 on the road this season. Meanwhile, back home, they have a record of 4-6, including a 2-0 defeat to UCLA last week at the Coliseum in which they spent the entire game on their heels and unable to get any offense going. The Bruins' goal in the 79th minute felt like an inevitability.
Away from home, however, USC has been a completely different team. It won all five of its road conference games this season and upset Notre Dame 2-1 in the marquee win of the season. If the Women of Troy get past Pepperdine, their road to the Women's College Cup in Boca Raton will likely be without home field advantage. The winner of this game will play either 15-win Illinois State or a 13-win South Florida squad with a likely matchup against defending champ UCLA in the round of 16.
If the Trojans want to return to the top, they will have to follow the road warrior mentality that has come to define the opening year of the McAlpine Era.
Kickoff is at noon Saturday and will be streamed on NCAA.com.