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Path to soccer title game came after USC players decided to take a knee

Path to soccer title game came after USC players decided to take a knee
USC's Katie Johnson reacts after scoring against Georgetown on Friday in a College Cup semifinal game. (Twitter / @USC_Athletics)

Despite all that Keidane McAlpine has accomplished with the USC women’s soccer team this season — winning 18 games and a spot in Sunday’s NCAA championship game for just the second time in school history — he says one of his proudest moments as a coach was a private one that took place in a locker room with only his players in attendance.

It was September, and the Trojans were off to a slow start, having lost their first two games. But that's not what the meeting was about.

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A group of players, inspired by sideline protests during the national anthem at NFL games, told McAlpine they wanted to do the same. Some teammates were opposed to the idea. So the coach called the team together for a discussion that featured tears, anger and a resolution: a handful of players would kneel once, respectfully, before the conference opener with Arizona.

A team that could have been ripped apart was instead drawn together, players said. An issue that could have separated them instead united them, and the Trojans have lost just twice since then en route to the national championship game against West Virginia at Avaya Stadium.

"At the end of it, we were reminded as Americans and as citizens … that we share the ability to have differences in this country and that's OK," McAlpine said Saturday in recalling the meeting. "But we are united in our goal of being where we are right now. That was the focus, that it's OK to be different and to have differences of opinions, but family is family.

"Lord knows all of our families don't always get along, but somehow we're still family, we still love each other and we still support each other."

The Trojans have had little room for error this season, winning their last three games 1-0 and winning by multiple goals only once since mid-October.  The most recent victory came Friday, over Georgetown, to lift USC (18-4-2) into Sunday's 3 p.m. final against top-ranked West Virginia (23-1-2).

Led by defender Kadeisha Buchanan, a Canadian national team standout who distinguished herself in last year's Women's World Cup, the Mountaineers have given up just nine goals this season, one fewer than USC.

"They're super-athletic, super-confident and haven't given up many goals," McAlpine said of West Virginia, which beat North Carolina, 1-0, in its semifinal. "We're just going to focus on ourselves and make sure that we're prepared mentally to just go out and have a great time. We're just looking forward to the game."

Much of the pressure Sunday figures to fall on USC keeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme, who has posted 15 shutouts this season. For that success the Oregon State transfer also credits McAlpine and his staff.

"Even when things start to get too intense, they loosen it back up. They remind us why we are here, because we love playing soccer and we enjoy it," she said. "That's a good thing to keep in mind when you come into situations like this."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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