“Stoppage Time” is a column by Sam Reno about NCAA women’s soccer.
The Pacific Northwest road trip.
Last season’s edition in the Evergreen State proved to be the difference in a Pac-12 title race decided by a singular point between USC and UCLA.
It was a test the Trojans failed in 2021, leaving Washington with just two points while their neighbors in Westwood escaped with a four-point weekend. Sure, UCLA’s head-to-head win on the final night made it official, but surviving the weekend away from home could have rendered the result of that Nov. 5 contest irrelevant.
This weekend in Oregon, however, there were no dropped points for USC. They leave with no holes, no weaknesses. Nine points up, nine points down – in lockstep with the reigning conference champs.
So, why did nobody see this coming? And why does nobody seem to believe it?
Not a single coach picked USC to win the 2022 Pac-12 title in the preseason coaches poll. When the votes were all tallied, the Trojans came in at fourth – trailing Stanford, UCLA and Washington State.
Despite starting the season at No. 15 nationally, a shorthanded loss at Purdue let them go five straight weeks without receiving a vote while remaining otherwise unblemished. Even after dismantling No. 6 TCU 3-0, it still took four more weeks to jump back into the top 25.
For some context, that loss to Purdue came during the Boilermakers’ welcome week on a night they broke their attendance record by more than 1,000 while playing without four starters – Simone Jackson, Simi Awujo, Zoe Burns and Brooklyn Courtnall – who were in Costa Rica for the U20 World Cup.
To answer the previously posed questions, hype is only delivered to programs with a historical precedent for validating it. Although USC is one of only seven programs to win multiple NCAA titles, they’ve never dominated a regular season from start to finish.
The Trojans have never won an outright Pac-12 title, as was well discussed during last season’s chase. In fact, they’ve only claimed as much as a share of the prize once – a split with UCLA and Cal back in 1998.
History says this team isn’t capable of sustaining the 11-game stretch of play required to top the Conference of Champions, and, incorrectly, many chose to listen.
USC led the Pac-12 from the jump a season ago, and if all-time leading goal-scorer Penelope Hocking doesn’t go down with an injury, they likely would have crossed the finish line before the Bruins ever got their chance to stop them.
This year’s campaign, in spite of the departures of Hocking and USWNT midfielder Savannah DeMelo, boasts a deeper, more talented roster than the last.
Croix Bethune – topdrawersoccer.com’s No. 1 player in the country – and Jackson – author of the fastest hat trick in the history of the CONCACAF U20 Championship – are nothing short of showtime.
These two have already dazzled with back heel passes, nutmegs, free kick goals and some of the best combination play in the country with the production to back it up. Bethune leads the Pac-12 in assists, and she and Jackson have 18 combined goal contributions to their names.
Courtnall and Burns, with four combined goal contributions, have proven to be reliable ball carriers and distributors while still bringing the one-on-one defending that earned them All-Pac-12 honors a season ago.
Awujo and Helena Sampaio have racked up a combined seven assists out of the midifield, bringing the attacking creativity DeMelo supplied throughout her decorated career.
Let’s go back to that Pacific Northwest road trip. Last season, in a pair of games against Washington and Washington State, USC scored twice and conceded twice over those 220 minutes.
This time around, in contests against the Ducks and the Beavers, the Trojans won the weekend 9-1 on aggregate with six different players finding the back of the net. And, most importantly, six points instead of the two-point trip that was 2021.
UCLA is a perfect 11-0, a record that includes a stretch of three straight road wins over Santa Clara, Duke and North Carolina. The reigning Pac-12 champs have more than justified their spot at No. 1 in the national rankings.
But what ultimately revealed the gap between the L.A. schools a season ago has given us no such indication this year. USC is every bit the national front-runner UCLA has been hailed as, and if you’re still choosing to doubt, I ask you look no further than the Pacific Northwest road trip.
“Stoppage Time” typically runs every other Tuesday.