USC soccer ready to rise again

LOS ANGELES -- USC's triumph three years ago at the NCAA Division I College Cup, with a dynamic side led by a fiery new coach and supported by one of college sports' most affluent and successful athletic programs, seemed to herald the arrival of a new giant in women's soccer.

Ali Khosroshahin didn't believe a word of it.

The veteran coach, who had taken charge at USC after building Cal State Fullerton's program into a burgeoning mid-major powerhouse, knew what might be possible -- that national championships, something only North Carolina appeared capable of winning consistently, might soon be a measuring stick for the Trojans -- but one trophy hadn't changed a thing.

The real work couldn't begin until the celebrations were over, and he knew it was going to be messy. Now, as Khosroshahin heads into his fourth season at USC, he says he believes his program is ready to assert itself, for real. The goal: another national title.

It's a difficult journey, to be sure. The usual powers, including the perennial Final Four qualifier across town, are loaded, as always, and USC has yet to live up to the standards the 2007 team set for the program.

"Those are standards that I have for myself," said Khosroshahin, whose team opens its season Friday afternoon against the University of San Diego at McAllister Park, just north of campus. "Those are standards that I've always had for every team I've ever coached. 2007 was a very special year, because we were extremely talented, and they just needed some discipline and to establish a solid work ethic.

"You can't run the program the way I ran the program the first year, where it was just pure intensity and demanding and demanding and demanding. At some point, the demands need to come from the players."

That's finally happening, he says. Khosroshahin and his assistants, defensive expert Harold Warren (a former teammate from his playing days at Cal State Fullerton) and goalkeeping coach Laura Janke (who played for and coached with him at Fullerton), needed three years to change the culture and fully take ownership of USC's program. This year's team will be the first they've fielded that is entirely their own.

"Last year we had a lot to deal with," Khosroshahin said. "The third year of being in charge of a program is always the most difficult in the transition from the mentality of the past to what our expectations are. We won the national championship in the first year, and I think a lot of people thought that our program was in place. It takes time to put your signature on a program, and for the first time since I've been here, the entire team knows us as the coaching staff. It makes a difference."

A former Edgewood High star, Khosroshahin played at Cal State L.A. -- for his mentor Leo Cuellar, a former Mexican national team midfielder who is coach of Mexico's national women's team -- after a stint at Cal State Fullerton. Khosroshahin, 40, inherited a superb group when he arrived on campus following the 2006 season.

His predecessor, Jim Millinder, had brought in the nation's No. 1 class two years earlier, a group featuring U.S. national-teamer Amy Rodriguez and several players with youth national team experience, but the administration wanted better things from such talent than its coach had delivered. He had taken the Women of Troy to eight NCAA tournament appearances in nine years but had won only five tourney games, none deeper than the first round.

Khosroshahin, whose Fullerton team dominated USC en route to a 2005 NCAA Sweet 16 appearance, brought uncommon intensity to the program, instilling higher standards and emphasizing greater fitness and accountability, and it paid off with a 20-3-2 campaign that first season, capped with a triumph over archrival UCLA in the College Cup semifinals and a 2-0 victory over Florida State in the title game.

The second year was pretty good, too, with a 16-5-2 record and a trip to the NCAA round of 16, where UCLA exacted some revenge. Last year's team disappointed, winning only once in its final six games in a 12-6-3 campaign and falling on penalty kicks to Oklahoma State in an NCAA tournament opener.

"You can't take over a program without paying the price," Khosroshahin said. "We came in and won a national championship. At some point here, we had to pay the price. And the price to be paid was last year. ... We showed [in 2007] what this institution is capable of, and now we've had the transition to our program."

"We love winning national championships, and [2007] was like the new beginning, the turn of this program," said senior forward/midfielder Alyssa Davila, Khosroshahin's first recruit at USC and one of four remaining players from the title-winning team. "We shoot for that every year, and every season since has been a disappointment because we want to be the best, and we've fallen short.

"We had a lot of trouble being consistent [last year], just being on the same page. You can't do that at this level. There's too many good teams."

Defender Chelsea Buehning said there was a lack of commitment from too many players last year, a "lack of caring, mostly. And that kind of went off to everybody, like a disease. ... We had a long run of games where we kept winning, but you could feel the attitude. What we were doing on the field, even though we won, we weren't playing the way we should have. We kind of just fell off track."

Khosroshahin agrees.

"We weren't very entertaining last year," he said. "And we're all very disappointed with the way we represented ourselves and the university. ... We're hoping [to be] a very organized team, a team that plays with some serious intensity, passion and intelligence, and hopefully scores a lot of goals."

He's pleased with the dedication of his returning players -- "This is the first time they've been more fit [as preseason began] than our freshmen, and that says a lot" -- and says he believes this year's team can contend for Pac-10 and NCAA titles.

That's what the USC administration demands, and although the Trojans are one of only seven teams to win an NCAA women's soccer title -- only North Carolina, with 20 championships, and Portland, with two, have done so more than once, and no other Pac-10 team has a trophy -- it continues to play in the shadow of its archrival.

UCLA under Jillian Ellis has been to seven successive College Cup Final Fours, and the Bruins, with a roster laden with youth national-teamers, are ranked third, behind North Carolina and Stanford, in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America preseason poll. USC is 19th.

Khosroshahin calls UCLA and 2009 runner-up Stanford, which is coached by former UCLA standout Paul Ratcliffe, "the benchmark for our conference, but if I remember, we're still the only one with a national championship."

The Trojans bristle at the suggestion that they're overshadowed by UCLA.

"I think they're a great school, and I would be lying if I said that they don't have a great a athletic department," said Davila, an Upland (Calif.) High School product who led USC with nine goals last year. "But we're crosstown rivals, and we're the best team in L.A. ...

"You can see this in the record books. They've never won a national championship. I mean, they've gone [to the Final Four] every year, and that's great. But if you go, go win it. You know?"

Also back from the 2007 team are forward/midfielder Megan Ohai (she "makes it like you've got a coach on the field," Khosroshahin said), defensive leader Karter Haug ("the anchor in the back for us for three years now") and playmaker Ashli Sandoval ("she has an intelligence level about the game that's rare to find in the women's game ... can make something happen from nothing").

There's experience up front (with sophomore Samantha Johnson, a U.S. youth international), in midfield (with juniors Carly Butcher and Brittany Kerridge) and on the back line (with juniors Buehning, Claire Schloemer and Ashley Freyer). A solid recruiting class features two U.S. youth national-teamers (Elizabeth Eddy, from Newport Harbor High in Newport Beach, and Mia Bruno, from Peninsula High in Palos Verdes), NSCAA All-American Haley Boysen (a Harvard-Westlake product from Moorpark), and several other players who will be asked to contribute from the start, all from top-tier club programs.

Most important might be goalkeeper Shelby Church, who takes over for two-time All-American Kristin Olsen.

"We like what we see right now," Khosroshahin said. "Now it's just a matter of playing someone else. We're cautiously optimistic that this group is pretty far along for this time of year."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.