Tournament of surprises culminates in USC, Florida State title game


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Fireworks thundered outside the window as UCLA coach Jillian Ellis sat through a somber round of postgame questions after USC stormed back with two second-half goals from Amy Rodriguez to beat the top-seeded Bruins 2-1.

Inside the walls and away from the festive atmosphere of a record crowd at Aggie Soccer Stadium, the pyrotechnic display could easily have been confused with any standard display commemorating some downtrodden group's independence from an older power.

Then again, maybe that's exactly what it was on a night that saw Notre Dame, one of only three schools with multiple national championships, and UCLA, the heir apparent expected to finally ascend the throne in its fifth consecutive College Cup, lose to two schools with similarly futile College Cup history.

Or as USC's first-year coach Ali Khosroshahin put it in his opening comments after the win, "The curse is over. Finally, finally, finally."

With the win, the team's first since 1998 against its archrival and Pac-10 nemesis, the Women of Troy advanced to Sunday's championship game against Florida State.

As was the case in the day's first game, when Notre Dame controlled possession for long stretches of the game against Florida State and had the edge in shots even before playing the final 18 minutes in a desperate attempt to tie the score for a third time, USC came out on top against UCLA despite a strong showing from the team with historical pedigree.

"I think UCLA was an exceptional team," Khosroshahin said. "I think they had the better of the game most of it. We were fortunate to finish a couple of opportunities. Kristin Olsen was solid in net and our back line was friggin' awesome, man."

As was also the case in the first game, individual brilliance and team resilience enabled the new team on the block -- relatively speaking for a Seminoles team in its third consecutive College Cup -- to come up with both the plays and the composure to rally.

Olsen, who played for Ellis with the United States Under-20 national team, kept the Women of Troy in the game with five first-half saves, including a spectacular parry on a shot by Christina DiMartino after the brilliant UCLA midfielder yo-yoed the ball through multiple USC defenders in the box and fired a shot from point-blank range. It ultimately took arguably the move of the season from Lauren Cheney to finally get even one ball past Olsen, the first goal USC had allowed in more than 400 minutes in the NCAA Tournament.

The second half belonged to Rodriguez. She first raced past UCLA's back line, held off a trailing defender after hauling in Ashli Sandoval's long pass and finished past Val Henderson for the tying goal in the 68th minute. Six minutes later, off one of four USC corner kicks in the second half, she redirected Kasey Johnson's header past Henderson to give USC a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

After the game, Khosroshahin said he never doubted his team had the ability to rally for the win and focused his halftime comments on the need to be more aggressive -- apparently using visual aids to emphasize his point.

"I don't know if he's going to want me to tell you this," Rodriguez said, grinning. "But during halftime, he broke one of those white boards. He gets very intense. And I think it's great for us. At times, it's scary, but at other times it's also motivating. That's what we needed at halftime, a big kick in the butt. And he gave us that and we were able to come out on top in the second half."

What's noteworthy is that Khosroshahin's team indeed had more to give. They didn't have to sit back and hope UCLA's stars went cold; they could do something about it.

When Rodriguez signed on at USC three years ago, it was something of a recruiting quirk. A player with the talent to play anywhere in the country -- she suited up for the senior national team before she suited up for USC -- she wanted to stay close to home and play for the school she grew up cheering for as a fan in the stands.

"I came to USC to change the culture, to start a new tradition at this school," Rodriguez said. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen the last two years, but this year, my junior year, I'm able to make a difference."

The toned down celebrations after each stop on the road to Sunday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET) and Khosroshahin's stone-faced assertions that success will only be measured in championships sometimes seem like overly dramatic machinations at a time when savoring the moment ought to take precedence. Except that USC really is good enough to win a national championship.

And so is Florida State.

After four weeks and almost too many stunning scores to count, what took place Friday night was evidence that this year's NCAA Tournament is more uprising than upset.

Are USC and Florida State the two best teams in college soccer? Good luck proving otherwise.

"Nothing compares to this," Rodriguez said. "I've played the national stuff and I've done other things, and those are great in their own aspect, but this is an accomplishment where I'm going against the best players in the United States. And it's a huge accomplishment for me and my team."

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