Meet UCLA’s Margueritte Aozasa and USC’s Jane Alukonis, the new soccer coaches in town
“I got my first taste of it last spring when we played the Trojans in a spring scrimmage,” said Aozasa, who had spent the previous seven seasons as an assistant at Stanford. “I had never experienced something like that. The whole thing was electric.”
Jane Alukonis was in front of the USC bench that day and for her the rivalry wasn’t new, but the viewpoint was. Alukonis was a UCLA assistant for four seasons before becoming head coach at USC in January.
“It is weird and unique, knowing what it feels like being on the Bruins’ side of that, where SC was not a team you wanted to face ever,” she said. “It’s also weird knowing all the players on the other team.”
Women’s soccer came to both campuses in 1993 but never before have USC and sixth-ranked UCLA both welcomed new head coaches in the same season, with Aozasa replacing Amanda Cromwell in Westwood and Alukonis taking over for Keidane McAlpine at USC.
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Both have big cleats to fill: Cromwell won UCLA’s only NCAA title in her first season, then made the semifinals two more times over the next five years while McAlpine won a national title in his third year, part of a streak during which the Trojans made eight consecutive tournament appearances.
“Can we continue the success of USC and UCLA?” Aozasa asked. “The reputation of the schools right now is going to precede any reputation of myself and Jane. But I do feel there’s an expectation on us to maintain that.”
They’re not the only coaches facing great expectations. Tim Ward, whose 281 victories make him the second-winningest Division I coach in Southern California behind Cal Poly’s Alex Crozier, has led No. 14 Pepperdine to 20 winning seasons in 24 tries, taking the Waves to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament for the fourth time last fall. And UC Irvine, the reigning Big West champion, is looking to get back to the NCAA tournament after upsetting UCLA in the first round a year ago. The Anteaters opened with two preseason shutouts and two regular-season shutouts, including a 1-0 win over Cal, before losing to Cal State Fullerton.
But the biggest programs are at UCLA and USC, whose teams have combined for three national titles, seven appearances in the championship game and 45 trips to the NCAA tournament in 25 years.
“Can we continue the success of USC and UCLA? ... I do feel there’s an expectation on us to maintain that.”
— UCLA women’s soccer coach Margueritte Aozasa
“Every single day I come to work, every day we are out on the field, I have that duty to make sure I follow in those footsteps,” said Aozasa, whose Bruins, the two-time defending Pac-12 champions, opened with a preseason win over Fresno State, a victory over Iowa and a 6-0 romp over Cal State Northridge. “So yeah, there’s a little pressure. But it’s not something I didn’t assume.”
Aozasa, who grew up in Mountain View and played at Santa Clara, was a top youth soccer coach for a decade and knows the California market well — a big reason why she excelled as a recruiter at Stanford, with her final class, the one she left behind, ranking No. 2 in the nation.
That made the move to UCLA, a team with 26 Californians on the roster, a bit easier.
“Most of these players I have some history with,” she said. “I think the team was receptive from Day 1. There’s been a little give and take in terms of figuring out how we’re all going to work well together. But I think the transition has been as smooth as I could have asked for.”
That transition was arguably made easier by the return of goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy, who allowed just 11 goals in 20 games last season. She is one of two Bruins, alongside sophomore defender Lilly Reale, named to the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, soccer’s version of the Heisman. But perhaps the best-known player is junior forward Reilyn Turner, who ranked second on the team with 10 goals last season. In December, Turner became the first college athlete to sign an NIL contract with Nike.
Last December is also when Alukonis’ crosstown move from UCLA to USC went from unplanned to necessary following Cromwell’s departure for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride.
“I didn’t even have a resume. I bought a place close to UCLA thinking I was going to be there for another five years at least,” she said. “But once all that happened, I started to look around.”
She started with UCLA, but quickly determined she wasn’t going to get the job there. So when McAlpine left USC the same week, she applied.
“The whole person comes first. There’s no way to build the relationship and get the best out of athletes if you only view them as athletes.”
— USC women’s soccer coach Jane Alukonis
“It kind of felt like both schools were hitting the reset and [were] kind of in the same scenarios, where you’re going to build a little bit of a new identity,” said Alukonis who, like Aozasa, is a college head coach for the first time.
That identity is taking longer to form at USC. After scoring 56 goals last season — 10 more than any other Pac-12 team — the No. 15 Trojans opened by failing to score in a preseason road loss at Pepperdine and regular-season loss to Purdue, falling out of the national rankings. The Trojans (1-1). who also beat Long Beach State 1-0 will play the first home match of the Alukonis era Sept. 1 against Texas Christian.
Midfielder Croix Bethune, named the best player in the country by Top Drawer Soccer, scored a team-high 16 of those goals in 2021 and is the only USC player on the Hermann watch list. (Pepperdine’s Carlee Giammona, Tori Waldeck and Trinity Watson are also Hermann Trophy candidates.)
Succeeding McAlpine involves more than just trying to match his record on the field, however. The coach also guided the team through a tumultuous period that included the COVID-19 lockdowns and the emotion of the Black Lives Matter movement by leading team meetings that often ended in hugs and tears. Alukonis, who said most of the private conversations she has with players have nothing to do with soccer, hopes to follow that lead.
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“The whole person comes first,” said Alukonis, the first woman to run the USC program since Karen Stanley in 1995. “There’s no way to build the relationship and get the best out of athletes if you only view them as athletes.
“They’re student-athletes and have loads of responsibility. To get to know them and understand them as people is extremely important.”