Commentary

Trojans look to prove '07 title run was no fluke

Originally Published: August 26, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

If opponents hope to find a complacent USC team this season but instead limp off worse for the wear after playing the defending national champion, blame the White House.

As the Women of Troy discovered, winning the first national championship in program history -- and the first women's soccer title for any Pac-10 school -- will get you invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for a ceremony honoring NCAA champions.

[+] EnlargeKristin Olsen
AP Photo/Matt SlocumKristin Olsen and USC allowed just 13 goals in 25 games in 2008.

It won't guarantee anyone will remember you are there.

"We didn't even get announced at all," junior All-American goalkeeper Kristin Olsen recalled, with both a hint of amusement and lingering consternation. "They actually happened to forget that we had even won. They never said our team name, our mascot or anything, so we were kind of bitter. But I think it just gives us more reason to prove to everybody that it wasn't a mistake and that we really did earn it -- we went through just as much training and hardship as everyone else, and we really did earn it."

That momentary slight aside, the trip to the nation's capital was a success -- the team had its picture taken with President George Bush in the Oval Office, and midfielder Ashley Nick presented him with a USC jersey and a soccer ball. But the experience couldn't help but reinforce the notion that even after winning a title in coach Ali Khosroshahin's first season in charge, the Women of Troy have something to prove.

As Olsen explained, "Even when we made it into the final four, nobody expected us to win, and everybody thought, 'Oh, USC is here for the first time; they're going to get knocked out right away.' Now that we've won, I still kind of get that feeling -- that people think it was by luck or by chance."

USC opened defense of its title with a 1-0 overtime win against San Diego on Aug. 22. In both choice of opponent (picked third in the West Coast Conference behind perennial national contenders Portland and Santa Clara) and venue (several hours down I-5 from Los Angeles on the Toreros' home turf in San Diego), there was suggestion that USC isn't resting on last season's accomplishments or waiting for challengers to come knocking on its door.

In addition to the tough opener, USC's schedule includes road games at Portland, Georgia and Clemson and home games against Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount. All of that on top of a conference schedule that finds the national champs playing UCLA, which beat out USC for the conference title last season, as well as top contenders Stanford and California within the span of 10 days.

Having your fellow classmates and athletes and everyone on campus say, 'Oh, you play soccer; you guys had a great season last year.' ... Football here is usually known as being the national championship team, and it's kind of cool to have it our way.

--Kristin Olsen

It's a heavyweight schedule for a program that for many years couldn't seem to punch its weight but now wants to prove it's more than just college soccer's Buster Douglas.

"I've always heard the saying, 'Act like you're at the bottom, even though you're at the top,' and I really think that's what we have to think about when we go into it," Olsen said during the preseason. "Everybody is going to come out with their best game, and if someone isn't feeling well or we're just not playing well with our team, that's not going to work for us. We've got to play our best even when we're not feeling our best. It's going to be a challenge, but I think we're used to being the underdogs. I mean, besides this past season, we never got anywhere, so I think everyone still has the same feelings. Just because we won a national championship doesn't mean we're any more special than anyone else."

Junior Marihelen Tomer put home the winner in overtime against the Toreros and is one of a host of attacking talents on a team with potential well beyond last season's modest 1.83 goals per game. Tomer, Megan Ohai and Ashli Sandoval, in particular, appear capable of emerging as prolific point producers, and it's not insignificant that Tomer came up with the goal her team needed while without senior Amy Rodriguez.

USC is a significantly more dynamic offensive team and a stronger championship contender with Rodriguez in the lineup, where she soon should be again after returning from a wildly successful year with the U.S. national team that culminated in five starts and a gold medal in the Olympics.

But spending the spring and summer without her wasn't necessarily a bad thing for a team still loaded with sophomores and juniors on the upswing of the learning curve.

"Amy is such a huge part of our team, and having her gone was a little different," Olsen said. "But now we're used to not having her, and so I think once we get her back, hopefully we'll be able to utilize what she's learned with the national team. We can only get better with her."

And for all the offensive fireworks Rodriguez provides and all the potential around her in the attacking half of the field, USC at its core was a defensive success story during its run to the title.

Facing two of the nation's highest-octane offenses in the College Cup against UCLA and Florida State, Olsen and her back line allowed just one goal in three hours of soccer. That goal by the Bruins was the only one USC allowed throughout the entire NCAA tournament.

All told, despite injuries that left the defense unsettled through the opening month, the Women of Troy allowed just 13 goals in 25 games.

"A lot of it has to do with team chemistry," Olsen said. "When you have a relationship with your back four and you have that trust in people and they have trust in you. We get along together really well off the field and on the field. The whole combination of everything, it just came together for us."

[+] EnlargeAmy Rodriguez
AP Photo/Matt SlocumUSC will be happy to see Olympic gold medalist Amy Rodriguez leading its attack again.
Janessa Currier, Karter Haug and Stacey Strong all return from the back line that started in the championship game against Florida State. But one of the most notable returning players didn't see the field against the Seminoles. A starter early last season, Meagan Holmes played just six games before sustaining a season-ending injury. She was back in the starting 11 in the opener against San Diego and brings another component to the defense.

"She's really aggressive, and she's got a lot of speed," Olsen said. "She brings a lot of speed to our back; on one-v-ones, if she gets beat, she's able to recover and slow down the play and help others get back. … She's an aggressive little player, even if she's not the biggest one out there."

With Holmes joining a lineup that includes 10 of the 11 players who started the championship game last fall and a deep freshman class that Khosroshahin has said will improve the competition in practice, USC is built like a championship favorite.

But perhaps unlike its gridiron peer on campus, it's a team that still feels most comfortable with a mindset bent on proving it belongs among the game's elite. Rather than make opponents wrest the title away, USC wants to show them they can't.

The Women of Troy stormed the gates of the women's college soccer establishment last season. Now they have their sights set on establishing an empire of their own.

"It was pretty darn cool," Olsen said of the reception on campus after the title. "Having your fellow classmates and athletes and everyone on campus say, 'Oh, you play soccer; you guys had a great season last year.' … Football here is usually known as being the national championship team, and it's kind of cool to have it our way."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. 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.