It was the final practice before the 2020 spring break. USC soccer head coach Keidane McAlpine approached the team and told them that spring break would be extended by a week because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The extra week did not seem like a problem to then-junior forward Tara McKeown — just an extra week off. But as one week extended into two and then eventually three weeks, the realization set in that the pandemic was not going away anytime soon. Before long, the Trojans were stuck at home and the rest of the season was canceled.
That was just the beginning of a long journey back to soccer for McKeown and the Trojans. With the pandemic raging across the country, uncertainty grew about what would come next. With the country shut down, McKeown began to question whether she would have a season at all.
“I always had that in the back of my mind that we probably wouldn’t be able to have a season, looking at how the pandemic was going on throughout the world,” she said. “I feel like I just had that in my mind so I wouldn’t get my hopes up and then be crushed when they told us we wouldn’t play.”
On July 10, the Pac-12 CEO Group announced that fall sports would play a conference-only schedule and the start of the season would be delayed by a month. Just a month later, on Aug. 11, the conference announced that all fall sports were postponed to the spring. The delay created an unusual schedule as soccer is typically a fall sport, but it also gave hope that with time, the pandemic would subside and the team would be able to return to the field.
For freshman midfielder Zoe Burns, the summer was spent wondering when she would be allowed to report to campus. As a high school senior from Issaquah, Wash., Burns had the end of her final semester disrupted by the coronavirus. Now, as she turned her focus to her collegiate career, it was not clear when it would begin.
Traditionally, freshmen report to campus around July 1 and begin a month of fitness training to get ready for the season. Instead, due to an increase of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles, USC’s freshmen were stuck at home with a fitness packet from the coaches.
Burns said that preparing from home was difficult but that the freshmen across the country helped each other get through it.
“It was very hard to [be] motivated and the freshmen were texting each other, ‘You got this’ because we were all doing it separately — but together,” she said.
Finally, at the end of September, the freshmen reported to campus, bringing the team together for the first time. With the late start, there was a lot of work for the team to do both on and off the field. As practice began, they placed an emphasis on building chemistry. However, despite it being a focus, team chemistry was one of the biggest challenges. Due to restrictions on gatherings in Los Angeles County, practice was the only time the entire team was together.
“It was definitely hard because we wanted to see each other outside of practice, but it wasn’t recommended,” McKeown said. “So we usually were just going to practice and then going home to do classes. I definitely feel like if the circumstances were different, we would have been a lot closer as a team, [but] we were just seeing each other at practice or on a computer during Zoom film [sessions].”
As the fall semester came to an end, players were allowed to return home for winter break. At home, they were allowed time to relax and were not restricted by the team regarding what they could do or who they could see. It was a time for the players to see friends and family before the season started.
When they returned to campus, all players coming from out of state had to quarantine for 10 days. By the time practice resumed, the season was just a few weeks away. It was up to the seniors, including McKeown, to lead the team in preparing for the season, something McAlpine was confident McKeown could do.
“[McKeown] truly embodies everything that we want in a player,” McAlpine said. “She has a no-quit attitude and she wills herself to do things sometimes her body probably wishes you wouldn’t. Then on top of that, you ask any question of tactics and what we’re supposed to do, where we’re supposed to be, she has the answer. If you’re a young player, and you look at her, and you don’t pick up something, you’re not paying close enough attention, because she’s that kind of player for us.”
McKeown and the seniors did their part in explaining the importance of the season and what it meant to be a team.
“This is my last year and all our seniors’ last year, so it’s our last chance to win,’' she said. “I feel like we’re trying to get that message across to our teammates to make sure that everyone on the field brings intensity and effort. That’s the least you can do.”
As the season neared, USC embraced the word “discipline” in making sure that they avoided contracting COVID-19 and in dealing with the hurdles they faced throughout the year.
But while prioritizing discipline was important, McAlpine acknowledged that it was not always easy.
“Doing all the little things, the check-ins, the testing, making sure we’re wearing our contact tracing fobs, being double masked in the airport with a face shield — it’s not the most comfortable thing, but [they’re] willing to do it so that they can give themselves a chance to play,” he said.
Along with the tasks that the Trojans had to follow in order to protect themselves from the virus, they also had to remain isolated from their friends and family.
“You’re [being careful] for your team,” Burns said. “As much as you want to [see them], what you do affects everybody else, especially with COVID. So it takes discipline to a whole other level.”
Finally, the hard work both on and off the field paid off for USC.
On Feb. 15, 2021, almost 15 months since its last action, USC returned to the field. In the first game back, USC scored a golden goal in overtime to beat BYU 4-3.
For someone who at times doubted she would ever get back on the field for USC, McKeown — who scored two goals — said it was special to be back with her team.
“That game made us all happy that we actually got to that point, and that it wasn’t just like we just kept seeing a game in the future,” she said.
Burns also got the start in the opening game, the only freshman on the team to do so. She had nerves playing alongside USC’s talented roster and learning a new position.
“[This team is] made of legends,” Burns said. “Before they even got to USC, their resumes were extremely impressive. So it was a little daunting to come in here.”
But despite the limited time she spent with the team in the offseason, Burns was able to rely on the support of her teammates to help her against BYU.
“Them helping out, especially in the backline, teaching me, helping me, all of them coming together and guiding me through this has been extremely helpful,” she said.
Following the win against BYU, USC traveled to Arizona State and was upset by the Sun Devils 1-0.
Not pleased with the performance, McKeown and the other seniors called a team meeting. They explained the importance of this season and reiterated that despite the differences compared to a normal year, the season still mattered.
“After the ASU game, the seniors did have a talk with the team saying that this was a real season, and we wanted to treat it as such,” McKeown said.
The meeting gave USC a spark, as it won its next two games against Oregon and Oregon State. The wins brought USC to 3-1, a solid start to the season despite the disappointing loss at Arizona State.
The strong weekend at home, however, was short-lived for the Trojans. As they began a trip to the mountains, USC’s struggles returned. Against Utah, nothing looked right for USC as they were thoroughly outplayed and upset 2-0.
As the Trojans traveled east to Boulder, Colo., for a matchup with the Buffaloes, they needed something to turn their season around. They got it on Sunday, March 14 in Boulder.
After the team landed in Colorado, Boulder was hit with a blizzard forcing the game that was originally scheduled to be played on Sunday to be postponed until Monday.
On Sunday, instead of playing, the team got to spend time together in the snow.
The extra day turned into a lot more than just waiting for the game. It allowed the players to unite, which was previously difficult because restrictions in Los Angeles limited team activities outside of practice.
The results from that Sunday in Boulder were apparent on the field immediately.
USC looked to have new life against Colorado, jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead. The Trojans were unable to hold the early lead, losing 3-2 in double overtime. However, the solid start helped USC build the momentum it needed.
“We found ourselves a bit because we did have some extended time together,” McAlpine said. “We were able to have some fun moments. And as you look at our record since then, you can see the shift. You can see its impact in our results because we left that trip more unified.”
Three days and just one practice later, USC traveled across Los Angeles to face top-ranked UCLA. In that match, McKeown scored both of the Trojans’ goals to force a 2-2 draw. From there, the Trojans found their stride, not dropping another match in the regular season and going 4-0-2 over that span.
During that stretch, it was the same word — “discipline” — that USC used to describe its success.
“It just goes down to discipline, honestly,” junior forward Penelope Hocking, the Pac-12 Forward of the Year, told Trojans Live on April 12. “Just making the right tackle and staying fit.”
The strong end to the regular season helped earn USC the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first round bye.
After a crazy 14 months, with all the hurdles that USC has faced, McAlpine is most impressed with the team’s growth and discipline, and he likes where his team is at heading into the tournament.
“We’ve morphed over the season. And everybody was just trying to find their way,” he said. “I’m really proud of [our] discipline and that ability to adapt, to pivot in moments when things change. [We] ultimately ended up with the unity necessary to make a run, and I think we’re finding our best form now.”
With McKeown and Hocking at the helm and a strong supporting cast including Burns behind them, the Trojans will look to finish the season with an NCAA title. They’ll do so using the thing which, despite all the countless forces constantly trying to drive them apart, has kept them together throughout: discipline.