USC, UCLA meet in top-10 showdown for the Pac-12 title

Under the lights in Westwood, an outright conference champion will be crowned.

A photo of USC redshirt senior midfielder Savannah DeMelo in a white uniform battling for possession against a Stanford defender in a gray uniform.

No. 8 USC soccer travels across town to take on No. 3 UCLA on Friday night at Wallis Annenberg Stadium. The Trojans need a win or a draw to clinch their first-ever outright Pac-12 title while the Bruins need all three points to secure their 11th straight.

Both squads picked up wins over Cal and Stanford over the weekend to set up Friday’s de facto conference championship game. If the Trojans were to get the point and clinch the title, it would be only the second time in Pac-12 history the outright champion has not hailed from either UCLA or Stanford.

The biggest question looming over Friday’s contest is the health and availability of USC senior forward Penelope Hocking, the program’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

Hocking was removed from an Oct. 21 contest at Washington State after a massive collision with freshman goalkeeper Nadia Cooper. The 2020 Pac-12 Forward of the Year has missed the three matches since but has been steadily improving and could return on Friday for the Trojans.

Even if Hocking is available against UCLA, head coach Keidane McAlpine will have his hands full trying to re-introduce her into this squad.

Hocking has played the majority of the season out wide in their 4-2-3-1 setup, enjoying ample time with the ball at her feet. Overlapping fullbacks and attackers arriving across the box have given her a plethora of options to operate as USC’s lead creator.

In Hocking’s absence, however, McAlpine has had to get creative. Inverting the fullbacks and holding them deep, USC has played through the middle, optimizing their remaining All-Pac-12 attacking talent in senior Savannah DeMelo and junior Croix Bethune.

The move has paid instant dividends for the Trojans. Bethune has been red-hot, scoring five goals in her last three games, including an overtime winner against Stanford. Her three goals and assist over the weekend saw her named Pac-12 Player of the Week.

DeMelo’s increased involvement both defensively and on the ball has her playing some of the best soccer of her decorated USC career. She assisted Bethune on both the equalizer and the game-winner, which her takeaway created, against the Cardinal on Sunday.

Hocking’s importance to this team is undeniable, but her return could complicate the efforts of a USC attack that has finally found its feet without her. Should she take the field, McAlpine’s ability to balance getting Hocking touches while also involving Bethune and DeMelo will ultimately decide the fate of the Pac-12 championship.

On the other side, the Bruins will need to grab firm control of this match early on. In all but two of its six overtime games in Pac-12 play — one ended scoreless against Oregon — UCLA has conceded the equalizer that forced the extra period.

While the Bruins certainly flipped the script last weekend, scoring late winners against both Stanford and Cal, they have an undeniable pattern of letting teams back in games, something this USC team thrives on: USC has only conceded two second-half goals in Pac-12 play, while finding match-winners in the second 45 five different times.

As was the case against Oregon, Washington and Stanford, the Trojans have struggled when forced to play out from deep in their own end. An end-to-end shootout could force the USC backline to make quick decisions with the ball, offering the Bruins a plethora of chances in front of goal.

If the Bruins are going to repeat as champs, they have to put the Trojans behind early while still taking the game at them and pressuring their backline into the types of giveaways they have not proven immune to at times this season.

USC has led this Pac-12 championship race from the jump, spending the last 29 days in sole possession of first place. Yet it will take one more result against a UCLA team it has not beaten since 2015 to ultimately claim the 2021 Pac-12 Championship.