Before USC opened defense of the NCAA women’s soccer title it won last season, coach Keidane McAlpine had his players visit with Peter Smith, who led the Trojans to four consecutive national tennis championships.
“He just made sure that we understood we have to go out there and take what we want,” senior forward Alex Anthony remembered of the summer meeting. “That was the main takeaway.”
It’s also one that UCLA senior co-captain Claire Winter agrees with. As a freshman she played on a Bruin team that also won a national title, then found itself with a giant target on its back the next season when UCLA lost in the NCAA quarterfinals to Virginia. The lesson, she said, was that the best way to defend a title isn’t to defend at all, but to attack.
“You want that hunter mentality,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re No. 1, you’re a little complacent at times.”
Complacency shouldn’t be an issue Friday night when the Bruins, four seasons removed from their title, play host to USC, the reigning champion, at Drake Stadium at 7 p.m. The cross-town rivalry is just as intense in women’s soccer as it is in football and basketball, but this year the teams have more to play for than just bragging rights.
Friday’s game will be the final match before the NCAA tournament pairings are announced Monday. With a win, USC will finish second behind No. 1 Stanford in the Pac 12 standings, likely earning a string of home dates in the tournament’s opening rounds. A UCLA victory would leave the schools tied for second. National rankings could also change since UCLA (14-2-2, 7-2-1 in the Pac-12) enters the game at No. 5 in the United Soccer Coaches poll while USC (14-2-1, 8-1-1) is one spot behind.
“Those are the type games you’re going to see late in a postseason. So this actually plays out very well,” McAlpine said. “If we would like to try to make a run back to the Final Four, these are the type games you have to win.”
For many of McAlpine’s players, Friday’s game could be the biggest one they’ve played at USC. The Trojans graduated six women who participated in last year’s NCAA final and have started six freshmen this season.
“It almost feels like a completely different team,” said Anthony, who leads the team with seven goals. “We’re a really young team. It’s closer to starting from scratch.”
The Bruins are also young, with seven freshmen earning at least one start this season while junior Hailie Mace leads the team in scoring with 13 goals. And imagine how good the Bruins would be if they still had U.S. national team star Mallory Pugh, who enrolled at the school in January, played three spring games, then left to sign with the Washington Spirit of the NWSL.
“We’re very attacking-minded,” UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said. “There are players that can play in a variety of positions. It’s really about getting the right 11 out there and kind of letting them do their thing.
“When we’re playing our best, the movement off the ball is fantastic. And it’s hard to defend.”
Cromwell, whose team spent six weeks atop the national rankings this year and handed USC one of its four losses last year, also likes ending the regular season with one of the toughest games on the schedule.
“The postseason, it’s do or die. You either win or go home. These games have that feel,” she said. “There’s a lot of meaning to these games, not only for conference, but for seeding implications for the tournament.”
UCLA also has its eyes set on breaking the NCAA attendance record of 10,128 for a regular-season women’s game. That mark was set in 2014, during the Bruins’ 2-0 win over USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The last three meetings between the schools have drawn an average of more than 8,200.