USC tops No. 4 Duke on the road

The Trojans scored three unanswered to take down a strong Blue Devils squad.

New USC women's soccer head coach Jane Alukonis wearing a Duke shirt during her time as the Blue Devils' director of operations.

Head coach Jane Alukonis and USC did not go easy on her alma mater.

In Alukonis’ return to Durham, North Carolina, to play against her former coach, Robbie Church, the USC women’s soccer team found themselves down early, but maintained their cool and eventually sailed to a 3-1 victory.

USC dominated possession in the game’s first few minutes, with junior midfielder Simi Awujo — who spent the summer with the Canadian national team at the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand — taking the game’s first shot on target, low to the near post of Duke goalkeeper Leah Freeman.

Duke recovered quickly from the early shock, however, and began to pass the ball comfortably around USC’s press. Duke striker Devin Lynch would often step towards the midfield to receive the ball with teammates making overlapping runs around her to advance the ball.

Duke’s methodical passing paid off, with sophomore right back Elle Piper whipping a cross to the back post that went over USC senior defender Zoe Burns’ head and straight to Duke’s Kat Rader. The sophomore forward headed the ball cleanly in, scoring her second goal of the season.

From there, Duke continued to dominate possession, using different runs and rotations from their midfielders and forwards to work the ball forward and create shots. USC had infrequent opportunities on the counter attack, and even when they did get forward, they struggled to stay onside, getting called offside seven times in the first half.

Other teams in the same situation as USC may have wilted and allowed Duke to run up the score, but the Trojans stayed sharp despite their lack of possession and eventually broke through with a header of their own.

Freshman forward Maribel Flores scored the equalizing goal in the 36th minute, when junior forward Kayla Colbert lofted the ball towards Freeman’s back post with her left foot. Flores made sweet contact with the ball, heading it low and back across goal, sneaking it past Freeman’s left-hand glove. The Fullerton, California native won the CONCACAF U-20 Championship with Mexico over the summer and figures to be crucial to USC’s success this season. The goal was the first of her USC career.

When the whistle sounded for halftime, it seemed like USC would be lucky to hold on to a draw. Duke had consolidated possession for the entire half and progressed the ball into the final third with ease, generating seven shots to USC’s three. Junior forward Simone Jackson, who scored USC’s winning goal in their season opener against Michigan, had a quiet first half and was subbed off for freshman forward Florianne Jourde shortly after USC’s first goal (Jourde is the newest member of USC’s Canadian contingent, joining Burns and Owujo among Trojans to have played internationally for Canada).

The second half started in the same fashion the first had ended, with the Blue Devils controlling the ball and USC seizing any opportunities they could on the counter attack. But shots became harder to come by for Duke, and the tides began to turn about ten minutes into the second half.

With Jackson returning to the game, USC gained momentum. Colbert scored a goal, although the referee disallowed it for offsides. Even though the goal didn’t count, USC displayed some excellent build-up play, moving the ball quickly from the centerbacks into Burns and through the lines for Colbert to run onto.

Shortly after, senior forward Angeles Escobar, who started the game at left back, stayed forward after losing the ball. She then regained possession at the top of the 18-yard box and unleashed a rocket from her left foot that Freeman had no chance at stopping. Escobar’s strike stayed high and nestled in the right-side netting to give USC a 2-1 lead in the 62nd minute.

Colbert continued to be a nuisance for Duke’s senior left back Olivia Migli and added a third goal fifteen minutes later. Junior midfielder Helena Sampaio played a slick ball over the top for Colbert, who dribbled to the touchline and hit the ball across goal. It wasn’t clear if Colbert intended to shoot or cross, but she hit the ball so hard that it bounced off Freeman’s hands into the net despite the goalkeeper having a favorable position to save it.

Duke never seriously threatened freshman goalkeeper Hannah Poulter’s net after the Colbert goal, and USC coasted to its second win of the season. Duke outshot USC 13 to five over the whole match, but the Trojans made the most of their opportunities and have started the season in fine form.

After the match, Alukonis reflected on her team’s performance and her return to Duke.

“It felt good to come back and see my coaches,” Alukonis said. “[I] just wanted to make them proud and give them a really good game.”

Church helped inspire Alukonis to become a coach and helped her early in her journey. Before Alukonis coached at UCLA and USC, she worked as Duke’s director of operations from 2015 to 2016.

“Both teams created a lot, at the end of the day we were lucky to put three in, and really proud of the team,” Alukonis said.

USC will stay in North Carolina over the weekend, traveling to UNC next for the second game on their road trip. The United Soccer Coaches NCAA poll has UNC ranked as the country’s third-best team. The Tar Heels are the winningest program in Division I, having captured the College Cup 21 times, while no other team has more than three.

“Sunday we’ve got to take care of business as well,” Alukonis said. “It’s awesome to be here and have the opportunity to play [UNC].”

No matter Sunday’s result, the trip has already been a success for USC.