Commentary

Tougher, unified USC looks to extend run in women's soccer tourney

Updated: December 1, 2007, 1:20 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

MORGANTOWN, W.V. -- It's only fitting that USC really did go the extra mile just to get to West Virginia for the program's first NCAA Tournament quarterfinal appearance.

Ali Khosroshahin
Sam Haythorn/USC Sports InformationUSC coach Ali Khosroshahin has brought discipline and unity to the Women of Troy.

Even if it might have been the only time since he took over the program that first-year coach Ali Khosroshahin would have settled for the path of least resistance.

Despite being the highest remaining seed remaining in their quadrant of the bracket, the No. 2 seed Women of Troy drew a road trip to Morgantown for Friday's date with the fourth-seeded Mountaineers when scheduling conflicts arose in Los Angeles. The trouble -- at least beyond finding warm clothes -- arose when the team's original flight out of Los Angeles was canceled, leaving half the traveling party to complete the trip with a layover in Salt Lake City and the other half passing time in Atlanta after a long wait at LAX.

Opponents have had far less success than Delta dividing the Women of Troy, something that represents a dramatic shift from how things stood at the end of last season.

"We expected to do well and we ended up not doing well," Amy Rodriguez recalled of last year's 2-0 loss against Stanford in the second round. "It was kind of frustrating, you know, the team kind of turned a little bit inward -- people kind of were frustrated with each other. And that happens on a team. You're around each other for so long, and when things don't work out, you have nobody else to take it out on but yourselves."

There was no shortage of ammunition. The loss against Stanford marked the seventh time in as many postseason appearances that the Women of Troy lost in either the first or second round. Despite its place in fertile recruiting territory and within one of the nation's most successful athletic departments, USC has always suffered in comparison to crosstown rival UCLA (USC last beat UCLA in 1998). Rodriguez, the nation's top high school recruit three years ago and a player who appeared with the senior United States national team before ever setting foot on a college campus, hoped to be a part of changing that when she signed on at the school just down the street from her home. But even that hope was grounded in the reality that USC lived in the shadow of Westwood.

"I wish it wasn't, but unfortunately it is," Rodriguez said of the perception. "UCLA has just always had great recruits, a great team -- Jill Ellis is a good coach over there for them. I just feel like every year we're like inches away and it ends up slipping away from us."

Watching all of this from afar was Khosroshahin, who played in college at Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Los Angeles and took his first job as a college head coach at Fullerton in 2001 after serving as an assistant at both of his former schools -- the same Fullerton program that upset the Women of Troy on their home field in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2005. So when USC parted ways with former coach Jim Millinder after last season, Khosroshahin couldn't pass up the opportunity to compete for a national championship and fix the problems he himself had exploited two years earlier.

"They weren't able to adjust to what we were doing," Khosroshahin said of the 2005 game. "And seeing the players that were on the other side, I thought that they could have adjusted better to what we were doing against them."

Rodriguez, whose only contact with Khosroshahin had been in that brief postseason encounter that ended her freshman season, knew enough about the new coach's style to be uncertain of what was to come when he finally got the team on the field in the spring.

"The only thing I really knew of him was that he's kind of an aggressive coach," Rodriguez said. "What I mean by that is he's kind of loud, definitely something I wasn't used to. I've always had very calm, relaxed coaches that don't necessarily yell during the games, and he was pretty much the opposite of that."

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The spring season, as Rodriguez recalled, was grueling, filled with plenty of running and plenty of reprogramming. And just as the establishment in Europe was so grateful to Galileo for revealing that celestial bodies revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth that they locked him up in his home, USC's players weren't immediately enamored with the secrets of success Khosroshahin was teaching with every sprint.

"I think the physical [aspect] is probably the easiest thing to see right away," Khosroshahin said of taking over a new program. "But the way we go about business is different than the way they used to go about doing their business, and it was a bit of a shock for them. It took us awhile to get past that. They didn't pick us; we didn't pick them. There was some conflict in the beginning -- nothing major, but you need time to establish rapport and you need to be able to communicate well with your team."

More than just intangibles, the new philosophy has yielded very tangible results on the scoreboard. USC scored just 10 goals in its final 11 games last season and averaged just 14 shots per game over the course of the entire season. The Women of Troy are averaging better than 17 shots per game this season and needed just 13 games to match last season's total goal production. They enter Friday's game with 42 goals.

"The style that we play this year is a little bit different than the way they played in the past," Khosroshahin said. "We're about creating opportunities for whoever is in front of the goal. From the very first game of the year, we created a lot of opportunities for a lot of different players. And I think that's made it exciting for everyone on the field, to know that at any time, any one of them can finish an opportunity and get themselves in the books."

Rodriguez leads the way with eight goals and demands constant attention from defenses, but seven players have scored at least four goals, and an eighth player, freshman Ashli Sandoval, leads the team with nine assists.

"The philosophy for offense and defense is totally hard work," Rodriguez said. "He's always told us that the best defense is offense. If you're continuing to go down the other team's throat, they'll eventually be too tired to go against you when they have the chance to have offense."

That philosophy will be tested against West Virginia, a team that thrives on aggressive play and which isn't likely to back down playing in front of what should be a festive crowd getting a head start on Saturday's home football game against rival Pittsburgh that could potentially seal a spot in the BCS title game for the Mountaineers.

After finally completing their marathon trip to Morgantown on Wednesday, the Women of Troy ventured out of the hotel to catch some of the West Virginia men's team in action in the NCAA Tournament and were met with a less-than-hospitable reception from the locals.

Which might have been the best measure yet of how far the program has come.

"We went to the men's game last night and we were booed as we walked in, which was absolutely brilliant," Khosroshahin said, as he broke into a rare smile. "I love that stuff. I love when people don't like you. That means you're doing something right."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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