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Star forwards Croix Bethune, Mia Fishel preview USC-UCLA match that will determine 2021 Pac-12 women's soccer champion

Nov 4, 2021

Bragging rights are always at stake when USC and UCLA take the pitch. But when these crosstown rivals meet Friday for their regular-season finales, the 2021 Pac-12 women's soccer championship will hang in the balance, too.

No. 8 USC (13-2-2, 8-0-2 Pac-12) visits Westwood needing a win or draw to capture its first-ever outright conference title. No. 3 UCLA (15-0-3, 7-0-3)—the defending Pac-12 champion—faces a must-win situation but has fared well in this series, going unbeaten in the last six matchups.

Both teams are red-hot entering Friday's rematch, with UCLA sitting as the last unbeaten team in the country and USC owning a 15-game unbeaten streak.

The Pac-12-title-deciding match will air on the Pac-12 Network on Friday at 8 p.m. PT. To preview it, spoke to USC's Croix Bethune and UCLA's Mia Fishel. The junior forwards lead their teams in scoring this season with 13 and 12 goals, respectively.

Here's what they had to say about the big game in separate but similar interviews. When you look back at this season and how you got to this point, what are you the most proud of?

Bethune: "I'm proud of this team for not giving up, sticking to the plan and just putting in the work to get this far. We started off with two losses, but we've really went (the rest of) this season undefeated with two ties. And that's very impressive, especially since we have a young team."

Fishel: "We've been undefeated, we've had quite a bit of ties, but I think the most proud I am of this team is our grit and our ability to never give up. Every team in the Pac-12 is very good. It's not a league that you can just get by. Every game we've played, everyone has been their best and we had to come up with a result." You have been part of some great teams before, but what makes your current team so special?

Bethune: "This group is special simply because we're young with so much talent, and I feel like we've made our bond stronger than it was at the beginning of the season. ... (By) having meetings, meditation meetings, and just understanding each other on and off the field."

Fishel: "I talk about this team so much to many of my ex-coaches, my friends, and ex-teammates. This team is very special because we're like a family. We have no drama, we're all very close, we can come to each other with anything on and off the field. I think the synergy that this team has, also including the freshmen who have been great this year, has added to the success of this team." What would it mean to win the Pac-12 championship?

Bethune: "It'd mean everything. We've been working so hard from the beginning of the season just to make this happen. This is the end goal. We played the quarter, we played the semi and this is the final, so make sure we're getting business done. Start fast, finish strong. ... I don't think we've won the Pac-12 championship, so coming this far it's very important to come out in first place."

Fishel: "To me, this team deserves it. We've been through so much. We're like one family and to be able to win the Pac-12 is huge because this league is known to be very hard to play in. So it would just be more rewarding winning the whole thing, especially against USC at home." What makes the USC-UCLA soccer rivalry so unique?

Bethune: "It's two big schools, two big teams in L.A, trying to show off who runs L.A. And we're trying to prove that this city is painted in gold and cardinal."

Fishel: "We're both two soccer teams, not boot ball. We play beautiful soccer. I think that's one thing that fans (can appreciate) and I personally like playing in. Both of our schools are known to be rivals, so we both bring it. And I think there's been a lot of pressure on our end because I haven't lost against USC, so I don't want to lose against them. None of us want to lose against them or be the team that does. It just adds to how much you want to win this game." What makes your team so dangerous from an attacking standpoint?

Bethune: "Oh man, we have a bunch of great forwards in a variety of positions that can do different things. And they just know how to put the ball in the back (of the net) and how to execute their job and make it happen."

Fishel: "We're a versatile team. We can score in any way. We have multiple players who can score. It's not just all on one or two players. Everyone's able to score, everyone's able to create their own opportunities. And we love winning, so we'll take care of business and knock down every opportunity that we get." What stands out about the previous games you played in this series? Do you have any favorite memories?

Bethune: "I feel like we should have won the games that I've played in, but they didn't end in our favor. I feel like this will be a very great game."

Fishel: "I think it was my freshman year. It was my first goal against them. I hit an upper 90. That's one of my favorite goals at UCLA." What impresses you most about your rival?

Bethune: "That they're able to finish the game off in a win. Somehow they pull it off in each game. It's pretty impressive."

Fishel: "They're a team that never gives up as well. You have two teams that will not settle for tie, won't settle for a loss. I think their drive and their commitment to scoring goals is impressive." What do you see as the keys to a win Friday?

Bethune: "Just making sure that everything that we practice and work on we execute it in the game. And of course sticking to the game plan. ... I don't want to give away too much." (laughs)

Fishel: "I think if we play our style, our play, and what we know, and not play for the other team, I think we'll be very successful. As well as winning 1-v-1 battles. If we're able to do our job and beat the player that's in the opposite position, then there's no losing." You lead your team in scoring. For people who haven't seen you play, how would you describe your game?

Bethune: "I'd say I'm a cheeky player who can not only score but can distribute and make sure my teammates are involved in the game."

Fishel: "I play what the game gives me. I don't force things. I don't believe that one player can do the whole thing. I'm a player who sets other players up, who wants other players to succeed. Anyone can score on this team and I think that the more eyes on me, the more other players are gonna be open. So it's not just me who can score. It's everyone that's around me. So I think I'm an unselfish player as well. But when it comes to big moments, I am ready for it." Other than yourself, who is someone on your team that fans should know about?

Bethune: "I feel like Simone Jackson is very slept on. But for those that know her, they know that Miss Jackson is for real. She's a great player and she's only a freshman. So I feel like the future is very bright for her. ... Her ability to get to goal, I feel like she's very unstoppable. And she's a strong big body that's very quick."

Fishel: "Another forward [Reilyn Turner]. Obviously me and her have been clicking this season, last season. I think it's really exciting to see her grow as a player, like being so close with her. I think also [Quincy McMahon] who's a freshman, who's our outside back. She's able to get up and down the field, create chances, get opportunities to beat players 1-v-1, and also play make. I think she's an underdog player. Same with Lilly Reale."

( asked Bethune and Fishel about each other's games. They have been teammates with U.S. Soccer.)

Bethune on Fishel: "She's crafty, she can score, she's mobile, she'll use her feet, and score with her head. Someone we have to watch out for."

Fishel on Bethune: "We go back since U15, U14, so I've been her teammate for so long. I played with her I think for four or five years. She's a great person. I have all the respect for her. Great player as well. She's very shifty, creative, unpredictable. That's the thing with Croix—you just don't know what to expect. So I think if we're able to throw her off a little bit, that will be huge for us." UCLA has already announced a sell out and blue out for Friday's match. What do you think about playing in an atmosphere like that?

Bethune: "I like to put on a show. So if a lot of people are there, it'll be fun. And also for this team, winning at their home place, it'll prove a lot."

Fishel: "It's amazing. I love when our fans come out. They show up pretty much every game. I think it was sold out as well against Stanford. It's huge for us. Being home and having your fans there supporting you, you don't want to be on the other side of it. So I know it'll be a huge advantage for us and I just love how close our fans are to us. At UCLA the stadium is literally like over the field, so we can really feel their presence. Hopefully it'll go our way."