- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Almost a year after they learned the name of their new coach, three and a half months after they played their first game for him and almost four weeks after they commenced a long postseason march to the College Cup, USC's Women of Troy finally stopped running.
And they started celebrating.
"Over the course of the game, they were the better team," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said Sunday. "The better team won the game."
As the final second ticked off the clock at Aggie Soccer Stadium and made USC's 2-0 win over Florida State official, coach Ali Khosroshahin hugged his assistants and pumped his arm in celebration, while the players on the bench sprinted to greet their teammates in the middle of the field. It was a display of emotion that stood in stark contrast to the ho-hum reaction with which USC players and coaches greeted the final whistle of a quarterfinal win in West Virginia, which sent the team to the College Cup for the first time in program history, and a semifinal win against archrival UCLA on Friday in College Station, which earned USC a place in Sunday's championship game.
As was the case all season, the Women of Troy followed Khosroshahin's lead.
"When you come out and say some of the things that I've been saying throughout the tournament, like, 'Nothing else matters other than the national championship, everything else means nothing' -- I really believed it," Khosroshahin said. "It wasn't just talk to pump up the team."
USC became the seventh school to win a national championship in women's soccer and earned a place in the record books as just the second team to win the title under the guidance of a first-year coach, following the lead of Randy Waldrum and Notre Dame in 2004. That USC managed the former was inarguably tied to the latter.
A three-time Big West Coach of the Year in six seasons at Cal State Fullerton, Khosroshahin beat USC in the second round of the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago and thought to himself that the Women of Troy had too much talent to have not adjusted to what his disciplined team was doing to negate its skills deficit. So, more than any formation or precise schematics he has introduced at USC, Khosroshahin's most important contribution to the existing roster of supremely talented players has been the mentality he developed while scrounging for bodies as the young coach of a fledgling Cal State Los Angeles program more than a decade ago.
"We were given a women's team to start in the spring of '95, when all the recruiting was done," Khosroshahin said. "And I had to go to the P.E. classes and the basketball team and the volleyball team, and try to find players. That's where it started. And then going to Fullerton, and being an assistant there for four years and really suffering. I mean, I've lost a lot of games. I've probably lost more games than I've won. But I think you learn a lot of lessons from those losses. And then when I became the head coach at Cal State Fullerton, you use all of that experience to come up with your own plan."
When he arrived at USC, he made it clear that the team would play according to his plan or they would never stop running in practice. While it was not the kind of entrance that earned him immediate affection, he found more than a few new charges open to the new attitude.
"Coming in, we expected more in a college program and that we needed to step up," junior co-captain Ashley Nick said. "We have talented players, and it wasn't acceptable how we were performing. I just loved that he gave us an opportunity to show what we really have."
Almost two hours prior to Sunday's game, Khosroshahin traversed the otherwise-empty pitch at Aggie Soccer Stadium in no obvious hurry to get anywhere. As he glanced skyward and surveyed the surroundings that more than 300 of his coaching peers tried and failed to reach this season, it was easy to imagine him soaking in the sights, sounds and smells that accompanied the culmination of an unbelievable debut season.
But just as Khosroshahin crossed the College Cup logo painted at midfield, his gaze snapped to a spot on the sideline at least 25 yards away, where a small sliver of brown interrupted the seamless sea of green. Striding purposefully toward the perceived defect, Khosroshahin, ever the self-professed perfectionist, picked up the offending piece of loose sod and unceremoniously chucked it over the fence at the edge of the field.
Why stop and smell the roses when you can stop to replace the divots?
That same attention to detail marked almost every minute of his team's effort Sunday. As they had throughout the postseason, the Women of Troy dominated on defense and controlled set pieces. USC played like a team short on talent, even as it showed off arguably the nation's most complete lineup.
Five of the six goals USC scored in its final four games of the NCAA Tournament came off balls that were headed either directly into the net or into position for a player to finish with her feet in the ensuing scramble -- three of them off corner kicks. When the ball was in the air and up for grabs, the Women of Troy could be counted on to get crucial touches, as Marihelen Tomer did on a loose ball in front of the net for the opening goal, and as Janessa Currier did off a corner from Ashli Sandoval for the second goal against Florida State.
And in two games in College Station, the defense that allowed just a single goal all tournament -- and that one a highlight-reel effort from Lauren Cheney -- harassed, hounded and hemmed in two of the nation's most creative and dynamic midfield talents, UCLA's Christina DiMartino and Florida State's Amanada DaCosta.
"They're very organized, well coached, disciplined in their defending," Krikorian said. "They're strong and athletic -- they're good athletes as well."
Similarly, by mixing a workmanlike attitude on offense with the raw skill of a premier program, USC took opportunistic offense to new heights.
As she displayed with a pair of goals against UCLA in the semifinal, junior Amy Rodriguez is a world-class threat capable of creating her own goals. But the Women of Troy benefited just as much this season from the kind of goals-by-persistence that ended up beating the Seminoles. Currier, Tomer and defender Kasey Johnson combined for four goals in the team's first 20 games this season. Against Florida, West Virginia, UCLA and Florida State in the final four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, those three scored four more.
"It took them awhile to start to believing," Khosroshahin said of the team. "But when they started to believe, it's been a spectacular run. It's been so much fun. I've enjoyed every second of this tournament."
USC will return all but one starter and two regulars next season, giving the Women of Troy an unmistakable opportunity to repeat as champions. But for one afternoon, they were ready to stop thinking about the next step and start cutting a few celebratory dance steps.
"Of course, that's the goal every year," Nick said of going for another title. "But we're just going to celebrate now."
They earned it.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
USC always has had the talent. But until coach Ali Khosroshahin brought toughness to the Women of Troy, they always faltered in the NCAA Tournament. USC reversed that trend Sunday with a 2-0 defeat of Florida State for its first title.