Dec. 4, 2016. Avaya Stadium. San Jose, Calif. USC defeats West Virginia 3-1 to claim its second NCAA National Championship.
That Trojan team was led by head coach Keidane McAlpine, in his third season with the program, and his thin yet noticeable gray beard.
The playoff beard — it’s the intersection of competition and superstition. McAlpine says he’s done it every year, delaying that elusive shave until his team is ultimately eliminated.
Senior midfielder Savannah DeMelo describes the Pac-12 Coach of the Year as “very superstitious,” adding that it even bleeds into the pre-match decision regarding which end of the field to play toward.
So why, as the NCAA Tournament began last week, was McAlpine sporting a shiny clean-shaven look?
Surprisingly enough, the answer to that question neither contradicts the testimonies of McAlpine nor his All-Pac-12 center midfielder. In fact, it only serves to deepen their validity.
McAlpine is so invested in the playoff beard arts that his practice bleeds into the regular season. McAlpine said that, in addition to the traditional postseason trim embargo, he refuses to shave until his team’s first defeat in Pac-12 play.
This season, of course, that first loss didn’t come until the last night of the season at UCLA, whereas that 2016 national title team fell to Cal nearly two months before the College Cup Final.
Same tradition. Different look. Same result?
McAlpine certainly hopes so, and part of that effort hinges on his team’s newfound attacking creativity.
If you drew up dots on a whiteboard, the lineup from USC’s first round matchup with Grand Canyon would look identical to McAlpine’s trusted 4-2-3-1 setup.
When you put names to the dots, however, the familiarity begins to dissolve. Watch them progress the ball and you see the different brand of soccer this USC team is capable of playing.
The Trojans have always made a living attacking from wide areas. That is where their most talented players, like Pac-12 Forwards of the Year Tara McKeown and current senior Penelope Hocking, are most effective.
While Hocking still dictates games from the wing at times, junior Croix Bethune became the first Trojan ever to take home Pac-12 Midfielder of the Year this season. Pair her with a four-time All-Pac-12 honoree in DeMelo, and this USC team has an ability to control matches through the middle like never before.
In addition to their elite ability to play with the ball at their feet, Bethune is a lethal finisher while DeMelo is one of the best passers in the country. Their desire to drop deep, combine and pick out runners opens up endless attacking combinations for USC.
McAlpine, in an acknowledgment of his generational attacking midfield duo, opted to invert his fullbacks late in the year. Playing the right-footed freshman Zoe Burns at left back and left-footed junior Jaelyn Eisenhart at right back helped to better facilitate the inside attacking channel.
Perhaps the greatest endorsement of the All-Pac-12 midfield partnership is how McAlpine speaks of them. He always includes praise for DeMelo when asked about Bethune and vice versa.
The Pac-12 Coach of the Year has supreme confidence in his team’s ability to progress the ball through the midfield, and he wants you to know it.
McAlpine has never shaved this late in the season, and his team has never been this creative and talented in the attacking midfield.
Even so, they can still bounce the ball outside and let their two-time Pac-12 Forward of the Year cook just as this team can make a deep run to Santa Clara and let McAlpine’s playoff beard poke through once again.
Same tradition. Different look.
Friday at 1:30 p.m. against Penn State at McAlister Field, McAlpine and the Trojans continue the chase for the same result.