Season Preview: 2021 USC Women's Soccer
LOS ANGELES – The No. 14 USC women's soccer team opens the 2021 regular season on Thursday and brings one of the deepest teams during the Keidane McAlpine era into the campaign.
The Trojans, who were selected 14th in the national preseason coaches poll and were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 preseason poll, return a total of 20 letterwinners from last season, heading into the year with four All-Pac-12 honorees, three All-Region players and one First-Team All-American. Add to that the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation, and the Trojans look poised to have a potent mix of youthful skill and battle-tested experience.
USC will look to improve on an abbreviated 2020 season (which was played in the spring of 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) where it went 7-3-4 overall and 6-3-2 in Pac-12 play, finishing second in the conference standings and making the postseason for the seventh straight year. The Trojans were bounced from the NCAA Tournament in their opening game, however, falling to Ole Miss in PK's.
USC will host Pepperdine in its season opener on Thursday at 3 p.m. That game can be seen on Pac-12+ via the Pac-12 Now app (no subscription required) or USCTrojans.com.
Here's a look at the 2021 Trojans…
Battle-Tested: The first name on everyone's mind while game-planning for the Trojans will be All-American Penelope Hocking, who comes into the season with 42 career goals (in striking distance of the all-time USC record of 48). In addition to her All-American honors, Hocking was the Pac-12 Forward of the Year this past spring and was named a semi-finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy. The senior forward lost her running mate up top, though, with another all-time great Trojan, Tara McKeown, moving on to the professional ranks. USC will look to temper that loss with a pair of proven veterans, both added via the transfer market. Jennifer Westendorf transferred to USC from Notre Dame prior to last season, but missed much of the spring campaign with injury. Westendorf, who did score once and post two assists in five games this past season, has 20 career goals and 13 assists from her time in South Bend as well. Heading to Troy as a transfer this past summer, was All-Pac-12 standout Jada Talley from Arizona. Talley scored 24 goals and posted 16 assists during her time in Tucson, earning all-conference recognition each of the last three seasons.
"Penelope is obviously our go-to goal-scorer, everyone knows what she can do," said Head Coach Keidane McAlpine. "Jen was hurt a lot of last year, but we saw glimpses of what she can do. She really gives us some seasoned veteran leadership and can score goals. Then adding a player of Jada's caliber was big. She gives us great pace and experience, and she knows what it was like to be the go-to player on her previous squad."
In the Mix: Hannah White, Katie Roditis and Angeles Escobar are all returners who have seen time for the Trojans over the last couple of seasons and now look to give USC production off the bench or possibly in a starting role at times. White is a junior who has seen her playing time hampered by injuries over the last couple of years, but she does have 13 games of experience and one start coming into this fall. Roditis and Escobar both debuted for USC this past spring and saw consistent time off the bench all season. Escobar found the back of the net once and posted two assists in 10 games played, and Roditis scored once in 13 appearances and one start.
"Hannah, Katie and Angie are players have already shown they can contribute," said McAlpine. "All three are coming into the season a little bit better, a little bit more experienced and we expect to have some great minutes from them."
Skilled Youth: Amongst the newcomers who are likely to see time at the forward position are Simone Jackson and Julia Gomez. Jackson was the No. 3-ranked recruit in the nation this past recruiting cycle and has an extensive resume as a standout for the U.S. Youth National Team, and on the club and prep circuits, to back it up. Gomez, like Jackson, was a standout for Slammers FC while also scoring over 40 goals at Wilson HS. Both saw extensive time already in USC's exhibition match against Cal State Fullerton last week.
"Julia is a straight-ahead fast and dynamic player with a great personality," said McAlpine. "Simone is a little more versatile, playing with her back to goal and using her strength, while still showing great speed. Both are incredibly pacey and give us some great options."
Battle-Tested: USC is loaded with experienced players in the midfield this year. The Trojans have a pair of All-Pac-12 performers leading the way in the middle of the pitch, with Savannah DeMelo coming back for her fifth campaign and Croix Bethune looking to build on a debut season this spring that saw her earn all-conference first team honors. DeMelo, who has already earned All-Pac-12 honors three times and All-American honors twice since coming to USC in 2017, brings 13 goals and 21 assists (tied for 6th all-time in USC history) into the season after posting six helpers in 14 starts this past spring. Bethune missed her true freshman season in 2019 due to injury, but announced her arrival in the spring with three goals and five assists to earn All-Pac-12 first team recognition. Madeline Vergura appeared in all 14 games for the Trojans last season and, as one of eight seniors on the roster, has played in 47 career matches, making 12 starts and recording seven assists along the way. Lily Perryman, another senior who transferred from Boston University prior to last season, earned All-West Region recognition in the spring after making 13 starts in 14 appearances as the Trojans' holding midfielder.
"Savannah leads the way as our most seasoned and veteran midfielder," said McAlpine. "I'm expecting her to have an even better season this fall as she was still coming off the injury and getting back up to speed in the spring. Croix I think we can count on to be even better this year as she gets further into her progression as a player and further away from her injury. Maddy is a solid and consistent performer who started a lot of games for us last year, and we expect nothing less this fall. Lily could see some time on the back line this year as a center back. Wherever she is, she gives us that physical presence and now that she's been with us a year, we expect a lot more understanding and leadership from her."
In the Mix: Olufolasade Adamolekun enters her junior season after appearing in 12 games this past spring and 18 contests in 2019, when she was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team. She has seen time as both a midfielder and a forward for the Trojans. Zoe Burns played her way into a starting role as a freshman last year, recording one goal and two assists while appearing in all 14 matches and making six starts both in the midfield and as an outside back. Burns' lone goal came in USC's postseason matchup with Ole Miss. Savianna Gomez saw action in just three games last season, but the junior did play 12 games as a freshman in 2019, scoring two goals and posting two assists. Alexa Gonzalez rounds out the returners at the position after seeing time in a pair of matches as a freshman last season.
"Sade (Adamolekun) is another one who we expect improvement from coming in with the experience that she has," said McAlpine. "She is versatile and can also play up top, but just gives us some solid experience going into her third year. Zoe is another player with great versatility and could play in the midfield or on the back line this year. Her goal in our last game against Ole Miss was a great one and with her being fully healthy and having a year under her belt, we expect that she will continue to progress and improve. Savi and Alexa had limited minutes last year, but both are very crafty players who add some great depth and versatility to our roster."
Skilled Youth: From the ranks of the Trojan's highly-touted recruiting class come a trio of young players who have a chance to contribute right away, even in a deep and experienced midfield. Helena Sampaio was originally supposed to join the Trojans prior to the 2020 season, but with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brazilian national had to delay her enrollment before finally getting to join the squad this summer. Sampaio has been in the Brazilian Youth National Team system for several years and also excelled at IMG Academy in Florida, where she spent her final two years of high school. Aaliyah Farmer and Simi Awujo were both members of the most recent recruiting cycle. Farmer is a local product out of Tustin and comes to USC as the No. 16-ranked player in the 2021 class. Awujo, who hails from Atlanta, joins the Trojans with experience in the U.S. Youth National Team system, competing at the 2019 UEFA Development Tournament and earning an invite to the 2020 U-17 camp.
"Simi and Aaliyah are both very skilled players who are good in the air and comfortable on the ball," said McAlpine. "Helena is an extremely skilled player and creative personality as well. We missed not having her last year, but now that she's here, we expect some really great things from her. We got to see both Aaliyah and Helena in our exhibition last week and saw some excellent things already from them."
Battle-Tested: The Trojans return a trio of players who have fairly extensive starting experience on the back line. Kaylin Martin has made 28 starts in 34 appearances through the last two seasons, earning Freshman All-American recognition in 2019 and posting both a goal and assist each year. Isabel Rolley missed the 2019 season with injury, but came back to make nine starts in 12 appearances last spring. Jaelyn Eisenhart, who earned Pac-12 All-Freshman honors in 2019, comes into her junior year with 32 games of experience and 17 starts mainly as an outside back, including starting all 14 games last year.
"Kaylin, Bel and Jaelyn are all know entities for us," said McAlpine. "With those three coming back, we feel good about the experience and chemistry they gained playing solid minutes last year. It gives us a lot of confidence starting off the year knowing we have a group who played together and has an understanding for what we want to do."
In the Mix: Mary Shin saw limited time last year, appearing in just one game as a freshman during the shortened spring season, but already appeared in 44 minutes during the Trojans' exhibition match against Cal State Fullerton last week. Savannah Kessler saw a touch more time last season, appearing in four matches as a substitute, but also looks to compete for an increased role after playing 59 minutes against the Titans this preseason. Anuhea Kane also may compete for time on the back line, but is still rebounding from an injury that saw her miss the 2020 season.
"We have some great pieces who we have been able to add and groom, and we expect a lot of competition on the back line," said McAlpine. "Mary has been with us and now has a chance to put her best foot forward. Savannah as well has a bit of experience in training with us and now has a shot to give us great depth at the position. Anu (Kane) missed last spring, but gives us some wide options if she can get healthy."
Skilled Youth: The back line is another position group where the Trojans have a number of young players likely to compete for some significant time and even starting roles. Brooklyn Courtnall, who already picked up a start at center back in USC's exhibition, comes to USC as not only a prep and club standout, but was a track star at Oaks Christian as well. Kayla Colbert, who competed most often as a forward prior to coming to USC, projects as an outside back at the collegiate level and was the 11th-ranked player overall in the 2021 recruiting class. Izzy Kimberly is another player with most of her prior experience coming up top as a forward, but has the capability to play all over the field, including in the back for USC. Kimberly had been an invite of both U.S. and Jamaican Youth National Team camps. Morgan Brown rounds out the newcomer group after a standout prep and club career at Sierra Canyon HS and Real SoCal. Brown ran track as well at Sierra Canyon.
"Brooklyn is extremely pacey and typically has played in the wide back position, but could play center back for us," said McAlpine. "She brings an unbelievable amount of pace and composure to our back line, as well as good heading ability. Kayla is another very fast player who can be an excellent option at outside back for us. She's played up top a lot and that just helps her be able to attack from the back line. Izzy has usually played in the midfield or forward lines, but we like some things that she's done as a defender and that's where we think she'll be able to contribute the most for us this year. Morgan is a center back by trade who gives us some excellent size and heading ability along with very good speed."
The Trojans come into the season with one clear-cut favorite to be their #1 keeper and a trio of players who have a chance to compete for the backup role. Anna Smith enters the season as USC's presumptive starter after three years of competing with All-American Kaylie Collins for the starting role. With Collins now at the pro level, Smith's 19 appearances in goal and 15 starts give USC an extremely experienced option at keeper heading into the season. No other USC keeper on the roster has played a collegiate minute. Emily Rhinehart and Talia Grossman both sat out the 2020 season behind Smith and Collins, and Reezyn Turk was the lone goalkeeper in the Trojans' 2021 recruiting class.
"Anna finally gets her chance to lead the group," said McAlpine. "Not only has she played a lot of games already for us, but having trained alongside and competed with Kaylie over the years, she's more than ready to step into this role. Emily has had a full spring with us and has seen what it takes, so she's ready to battle for an increased role this fall. Talia is coming off injury and is now ready to step it up and compete as well. Reezyn is the newbie of the group. She's a very quick shot-stopper with a great personality and leadership skills. Nothing is given, and Anna knows she has to compete to stay in that role, but right now we have a clear #1 and then a great battle for the second spot."
The Trojans have a pair of players who will miss the 2021 season with injuries in defender Lily Babalola and forward BK Harris. Babalola played in three matches and made one start this past spring before going down with an injury that will keep her out of this fall as well. Harris is a member of the 2021 recruiting class who has yet to compete for the Trojans. Kane also enters the year hurt, but has not been ruled out for the season.
The Trojans once again play one of the toughest schedules in the country this year. The 18-game slate features seven homes games and 11 road games, with USC facing seven opponents who made the NCAA Tournament last year and nine who are currently ranked or receiving votes in the preseason coaches poll.
"This preseason has been different in that we have been able to play an exhibition and a scrimmage unlike last season and that has helped us work out some of the kinks and nerves that are always there," said McAlpine. "Then playing the non-conference schedule that we have, going up against Pepperdine, making trips to Utah (BYU/Utah Valley) and Michigan (Michigan/Western Michigan), playing the Big West schools (UC Santa Barbara/CSUN), will allow us to test ourselves. Hopefully during that time we can figure out who we are and get our rotations together, while developing the cohesion necessary to compete in a conference like the Pac-12. This schedule gives us a chance to create the depth we need to have, allows us to put players in tough situations and put our team in tough environments with five straight games on the road, so that we can enter conference play with the right development and mindset to make some history."