No. 8 USC soccer defeated Cal 2-0 on Thursday at McAlister Field. The victory extends the Trojans’ unbeaten streak to a program-record 14 straight and guarantees they will hold at least a one-point lead in the Pac-12 when the night is done.
The Trojans were still without senior forward Penelope Hocking for the second consecutive match after a massive collision knocked her out of the closing minutes of regulation against Washington State one week ago.
After injury kept her out of the last two contests, redshirt senior forward Jada Talley made her return to a starting lineup that saw its first significant shakeup since the Sept. 3 match against Michigan.
Head coach Keidane McAlpine opted for a single-pivot for the first time this season, with freshman Simi Awujo getting the nod as that holding midfielder.
The move allowed the Trojans to start a pair of central attacking midfielders in senior Savannah DeMelo and junior Croix Bethune in addition to their standard three attackers up front. With the wings holding the width, USC was able to freely drive the ball forward through the middle of the Cal defense.
“I thought it worked out well for us today,” McAlpine said after the match. “We wanted to bring DeMelo from a different position and make sure they couldn’t key in what we’ve been doing in the past.”
DeMelo shined in her start alongside Bethune in the newly adjusted attacking midfield, embracing its increased defensive workload. She won countless one-on-one battles with Golden Bear midfielders, allowing the Trojans to enjoy the majority of the possession.
“I thought Savannah DeMelo was player of the day,” McAlpine said. “With her defensive work through the midfield, she was cutting down all their opportunities to get forward. She changed the game for us.”
Bethune grabbed the opener for USC in the 26th minute, controlling a loose ball in the box and firing it past the keeper at the far post. The Pac-12′s second leading goal-scorer now has four goals in her last five, including three goals in the two matches since Hocking’s injury.
“We needed somebody to pick up the goal scoring,” McAlpine said of Bethune. “She stepped into that role and was so instrumental in setting up some other things. She’s a fantastic attacking personality.”
McAlpine also chose to swap his fullbacks, starting sophomore Zoe Burns at left back and junior Jaelyn Eisenhart at right back. With the changes in midfield, the fullbacks rarely, if ever, overlapped in attack, allowing the USC back line to sit back for the majority of the match.
“We knew they were going to cut off the outside,” McAlpine said of the swap. “It put both of them on their natural foot coming inside. They’re so used to working the width and working the width that it gave us an opportunity to come inside and just do some different things.”
Despite the decision to keep the fullbacks deep, Burns was able to help unlock the Golden Bear defense. She added an assist in the 34th minute, playing a perfect long ball over the top to junior forward Hannah White who capitalized to put the Trojans up 2-0.
After Thursday’s win, USC is now just four points away from clinching its first ever solo Pac-12 title. The Trojans host No. 9 Stanford on Sunday afternoon before traveling to Westwood to take on No. 5 UCLA under the lights next Friday night.