How USC soccer’s Croix Bethune became one of the best players in the country
Since Hannah White was 7 years old, there was one name at the top of every scouting report.
White, a USC forward who grew up playing on rival clubs against Bethune in the Atlanta area, remembered coaches focusing on the diminutive midfielder. Don’t let Bethune get the ball, don’t let her face up, and most importantly, coaches said, don’t let her score.
It was all easier said than done.
“No matter how small she is, she’s been able to perform,” said White, who is now reaping the benefits of having Bethune on her team.
From starring in youth leagues and on junior national teams, the 5-foot-3 midfielder has carried the responsibility of being a star on her narrow shoulders with resilience and style that sets the tone for No. 15 USC. Bethune leads the Trojans (9-2-3, 5-1-2 Pac-12) with seven goals and eight assists. Her 1.69 points per game ranks second in the Pac-12, where USC is third in the standings behind UCLA and Stanford.
Bethune entered the season as Top Drawer Soccer’s No. 1 player in the country and was one of five active college players named to the U.S. women’s national team preliminary roster for the CONCACAF championship. Facing the national spotlight and every opposing defense’s full attention, Bethune remains unfazed.
“I don’t feel pressure because pressure is what builds strength,” Bethune said. “You have to love the pressure to be great.”
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Selected as a consensus first-team All-American last year and a semifinalist for the Hermann Award that honors college soccer’s top player, Bethune scored 16 goals with 10 assists as a junior. Her 16 goals were the third most for a single season in school history.
When she took over as head coach this season, Jane Alukonis knew she wanted to maintain USC’s history of high-scoring offense and attacking style in transition. To do it, she knew she needed a special player who could connect passes and create chances.
Bethune was the perfect fit.
Sometimes Bethune sets up teammates with a cheeky backheel or a perfectly placed chip shot over defenders. In a game against Oregon last year, Bethune drew oohs and aahs from an opposing crowd when she collected a rebound from a blocked shot and balanced the ball on her forehead while waiting for her teammates to come forward into attacking position.
“That creativeness is something that I can’t always wrap my head around,” Alukonis said. “You always wonder where that comes from, but it’s obviously just a gift.”
Living in England for three-and-a-half years solidified Bethune’s love of soccer. There were no girls teams so she played with boys starting at 4 until her parents, who were both in the Air Force, returned to Georgia.
While she balanced basketball with soccer through high school, Bethune dedicated herself to soccer after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament while training with the U17 national team in 2018. It was the first time she had sustained a major injury during her career. It cost her a chance to play in that year’s U17 Women’s World Cup.
“It put me in kind of a dark space because I couldn’t play soccer anymore, do something that I wanted to do,” Bethune said. “It was just taken away from me. It also made me realize how much I do love the sport and you can’t take anything for granted.”
Bethune tore her ACL again in training at USC before her freshman season, another debilitating blow to the No. 1 recruit in the country who had dreams of making a quick impact. It wouldn’t be until spring of 2021, after the pandemic delayed the 2020 season, that Bethune made her college debut. She notched two assists in a win over BYU.
The performance put opposing coaches on notice. Alukonis, a former UCLA assistant, recalled during a staff meeting when a fellow coach tabbed Bethune, who was still playing with a bulky brace on her left leg, “one of the best players in college soccer.”
“She’s the player that catches your eye,” said Alukonis, now in her first season as USC’s coach.
The free-flowing format of soccer suits Bethune’s quietly creative personality, which also comes out through poetry, art and fashion. Bethune’s flashy playing style on the field is like “night and day” compared to her reserved persona off the field, White said.
While Bethune has gradually opened up to her longtime youth soccer rival, Bethune is reserved in most conversations. The two-year captain is not “extremely vocal,” Alukonis said, but demands the respect of her teammates with her consistent production on the field from any position.
She thrives mostly as an attacking midfielder with freedom to roam, but Bethune doesn’t hesitate if an injury or substitution forces a move to defensive midfield. While acclaimed for her technique and finesse on offense, the undersized Bethune, who lives up to her mantra of “heart over height,” takes pride in her defense as well, something the coaching staff knows will be important in her growth toward playing on the senior national team.
“She’s one that carries a lot on her shoulders,” Alukonis said, “but doesn’t show it.”
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Bethune doesn’t shy away from big moments. Locked in a defensive battle against Arizona on Oct. 6, Aaliyah Farmer was pulled down in the box, earning USC a penalty kick that could have broken the scoreless tie.
Bethune, who was a perfect three for three on penalty kicks during her college career, stepped up and lined up a hard shot to the right of the goalkeeper. Arizona’s Hope Hisey saved it. Stunned, the USC defense gave up a goal two minutes later and the Trojans took their first conference loss.
That weekend, Alukonis recalled Bethune’s mother saying she wished her daughter wouldn’t be so hard on herself. Alukonis sympathized and sent Bethune a text that night.
“Still know that you’re going to lead this team as far as we can possibly go,” it read in part. “We have full belief in you.”
Bethune responded in the best way she knew how. She scored two goals in six minutes in the next game and led the Trojans to a win.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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