Long Beach State soccer finds itself in a good-news bad-news situation. On the bright side, the 49ers are in the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, their first round matchup is on the road against USC, a team that beat them 3-0 against the 49ers this year.
Led by freshman Penelope Hocking, the USC offense is strong. The striker scores on more than half the shots she takes, but there are a few things Long Beach has going in its favor that could help it pull an upset.
There are two caveats. USC will get at least one great shot on goal Friday. Senior goalkeeper Imani McDonald will need to live up to her .947 save percentage this year to keep Long Beach in the game.
Long Beach won’t win if they don’t spend a significant amount of time on the Trojans’ side of the field. With USC taking almost 20 shots per game, Long Beach can’t expect to hold the Trojans scoreless. The 49ers will have to score at least twice to win, and that requires ball control in the attacking third.
The good news on that front is that Big West Conference Tournament MVP Dana Fujikuni will create problems for the USC defense. The midfielder is particularly adept at drawing fouls. If she receives a pass with speed in the attacking third it creates a dilemma for a back line. Either play tight and risk allowing a set piece — probably taken by Ashley Gonzales, the best striker in school history — or allow the MVP room to work with strikers in the box.
Gonzales, senior forward for the 49ers, set the school record in career goals earlier this year. She has scored 36 goals in her four years with the team and is both accurate and clever with her ball placement. It is highly unlikely that she’ll be rendered ineffective by a USC defense, as good as that defense is.
Gonzales’ ongoing record points to another simple fact that favors the 49ers: this year is special. Gonzales was nearly in tears when speaking about her team and their conference title. The chemistry embedded in this 49er squad is palpable.
The most direct benefit of strong team chemistry is good passing. Because of their bond and familiarity with each other, the 49ers know where their teammates are on the field.
That knowledge will allow them to make quicker and more confident passes, which are crucial to keeping the ball in the attacking third against a team ranked higher than they are.
The 49er freshmen also contribute heavily to the team’s play. Sierra Castles’ play serves as a great example. As her minutes played suggests, she doesn’t have as much endurance as Fujikuni or Gonzales, but she is probably quicker and more agile than both of them.
Castles could be used as a sub in the second half to capitalize on a tired defense. The Hawaii native can use her quickness and small size and to find open spaces in coverage, making her a good middle passer on give-and-go plays.
If any of the Long Beach fall sports teams are up to this type of challenge, it’s women’s soccer. My prediction is 2-1 Long Beach due to second-half goals by Gonzales and Castles.
To see if I’m right, make the drive up to Los Angeles for the 1:30 p.m. game Friday at USC.