With grit, guts and three goals, USC wins women's soccer national championship
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Midway through the first half of Sunday's national championship game at Avaya Stadium, USC's Kayla Mills took a West Virginia shot flush in the face from no more than a few yards away. It felt, well, unpleasant. A ball to the nose will feel that way.
"I wanted to cry," Mills said after the game. "I wanted to stop, but I was like 'Oh my gosh, the ball is still in our half. I cannot let them score, because I did not get hit in the face for nothing.' And so, I was just trying to get myself sorted out. I didn't want to take that for nothing.
"It hurt, and I wanted to cry a little bit. But nothing came out, so we're good."
It just didn't hurt as much as missing the NCAA tournament, which she experienced in a freshman season that went very wrong.
Three years later, a senior, Mills was on the field when the final whistle brought the college season to an end. And after No. 2 USC's 3-1 win over No. 1 West Virginia, she stayed there to celebrate a national championship with her teammates. So, no, it wasn't for nothing.
Put aside for a moment the pair of goals from USC's Katie Johnson that first put her team ahead and later allowed them to breathe easy for the final few minutes. Put aside goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme's championship-preserving saves. Leave all of that for later.
USC won the title while outscoring its six opponents by a total of seven goals. That is the smallest goal differential of any champion since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 2001. USC survived a shootout in the second round, the earliest an eventual champion ever partook in that lottery during the same time span. It won three consecutive 1-0 games to reach Sunday's final. It was outshot in each of its final three games, including 21-8 by the Mountaineers on Sunday.
The Trojans didn't dominate the tournament. That isn't the objective. It is to be there at the end. The Trojans had a plan for that.
To understand what transpired, as USC broke down one of the stingiest defenses in recent College Cup memory to become just the fourth program to win multiple titles, start with a ball to the face. A group of players -- for whom the start of their college experience was like a ball to the face -- did over four seasons just what Mills did on this night. They played on.
Six seniors played major minutes. Four transfers played major minutes.
They accounted for all three goals and two of the assists. Oh yes, and eight saves.
Those were courtesy of Prudhomme, who played against USC in her first two college seasons at Oregon State. Back in the bad old days. After winning a title in 2007, USC fell off the map. The nadir was a losing record and missed tournament in 2013.
"It just didn't seem to be working out, like they were just a little underachieving, and we didn't understand why," Prudhomme said of her view from the other goal. "But I knew how good those players were."
Keidane McAlpine arrived prior to the 2014 season and talked of a plan to contend for a title. Mills said it seemed the coaches saw things in the players that even the players didn't see at that point, which made it a difficult sell.
"There's no way, from where we are right now," Mandy Freeman recalled thinking, "that we could get a natty champ by my senior year."
But that is exactly what they did.
USC did what no one else in the NCAA tournament could when it took the lead against West Virginia. No worse than tied in its five previous games, the Mountaineers trailed after just 82 seconds in the final. The set-piece goal, Savannah Levin heading a corner kick deep into the box to set up Morgan Andrews for a headed finish, wasn't the fastest in the history of the final, but it was a lightning bolt. Undaunted, West Virginia piled up possession and shots until Ashley Lawrence tied the game with a 66th-minute strike. Still, the Mountaineers pressed on.
But USC was outshot 41-25 in its final three games. Defending wasn't uncomfortable territory. And when Andrews launched a quick counterattack with a long pass that Leah Pruitt, another transfer, turned into an assist on the first of Johnson's two goals, USC had the lead back at 2-1.
"We've talked about our team defending, day one," McAlpine said. "I'm big on defending. But we always talk about we defend so we can attack. We've been able to create chances. I said it the other day, we've always been able to create chances and been very opportunistic all year. We've got a quality group of forwards. And today was no different. We had to stay unified in what we were doing, disciplined in what we were doing. ... I thought our individual defending, especially in the box with crosses coming in, was fantastic.
"And we knew we had a solid netminder. She's good; shots from distance she can take care of. Not to mention the special saves, which I think she made a handful today as well."
Yes, Prudhomme did. None of them better than with 10 minutes remaining and USC still leading by a single goal. In a game in which West Virginia showed off the skill worthy of a team with so many players experienced at the international level, nothing was more impressive than the first-touch pass that Lawrence slid through a gap and the incredible control of Heather Kaleiohi to spin away from a defender as she gathered in the ball and faced no one but Prudhomme. That level of execution at the college level leads to goals almost every time.
But only almost. Sliding to her right as Kaleiohi spun that direction, Prudhomme reached back across her momentum and pawed away the shot headed toward the far post. Johnson capped the scoring with a deft long-range finish on another counter with barely three minutes left.
Like Andrews, the Notre Dame transfer so instrumental in two of the three goals, Prudhomme was a late but invaluable addition to USC's rebuilding effort.
Transferring within the Pac-12 meant that Prudhomme had to sit out a season, a penalty most transfers don't pay in sports other than football and basketball. But that was a small price to pay for what she found in Los Angeles.
"I came from a situation where it was very intense and very upsetting and you didn't feel comfortable playing," Prudhomme said. "You didn't feel like you did anything right, and you felt kind of worthless. We came here, and they made me confident again. I was actually getting to the point where I wanted to quit, because that's how much I hated soccer. And it wasn't because I actually hated the game. ...
"I think this coaching staff did an amazing job bringing these players that came from a similar situation that I did and bringing them back to a place mentally where they believe they're good players. Because they are good players."
All of that would have been true no matter the outcome in the final. For a group of players and coaches so open about not only their soccer experiences, but their conversations about matters of cultural significance and the roles they hope to play in the wider world, Sunday's result didn't really define them any more than the loss defined a brilliant West Virginia team.
But they are also good players who earned the trophy they held aloft.
And if you're going to get hit in the face, well, it's nice to know it wasn't for nothing.