by Steven Leventhal
As the 2010 season gets underway this Friday, USC’s women’s soccer team has some rather lofty expectations. This is a team that has four members remaining from a squad that won the NCAA championship in 2007, and is ranked 19th nationally in a conference that features two powerhouses in Stanford (second) and UCLA (third.) Ironically, the Trojans are the only conference team to have won the national title.
Fourth year coach Ali Khosroshahin will be counting on his top two scorers from 2009, sophomore Samantha Johnson from Palmdale, CA, and leading scorer, senior Alyssa Dávila, a second team All Pac-10 midfielder from Upland, CA.
Khosroshahin is effusive in his praise for Dávila’s play and leadership. "She is the backbone. She sets the standards in how to work and how to communicate with her teammates. And her performance on the field speaks for itself.”
This is quite a change from the freshman who admits that at first she greatly underestimated the difficulty of getting used to the college routine. She does, however, credit the support system for her progress to date. Alyssa says, “I got help from the people around me, including the tutors. I have learned to be very efficient with my time.”
It is unquestionably a challenge to be a Division 1 athlete and make a commitment to schoolwork, where Dávila is working hard towards a degree in psychology. “I have to plan out my whole day, day by day,” she says. “I live kind of far away, so I don’t go back and forth to my apartment. I have a planner and I make my schedule.” Her secret? “Stay focused, and when you have time to rest, take it.” So far, the hard work seems to be paying off a Alyssa has been selected as a candidate for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award
That growth and maturity began in her freshman season. Dávila describes in great detail the mood that year. “It felt like we were kind of on the radar because the experts were saying we had a new coach and really have talent, and we brought in a good class. So let’s see what they are going to do, yet we were kind of looked at as the underdog. Our feeling was we really don’t have anything to lose. And that’s how we took it, we have nothing to lose – let’s go for it.”
She goes on to remind everyone that the Pac-10 conference is always so good, but remembers that USC had a group of juniors in 2007 who were one of the top recruiting classes in the nation when they started school two years prior. “It was surreal,” she notes. “It was a little different because of what we went through in the [NCAA Tournament] semi-final. We played UCLA, and in conference we had lost to them. It’s such a huge rivalry. We were down 1-0 and came back to win it 2-1. That was huge. After that, we knew we were going to win.” They went on to the championship game where they defeated Florida State 2-0.
Those memories alone aren’t enough to get the team back to the championship. Although they have been to the post season in 2008 and 2009, a return to the final four has eluded them so far. USC’s soccer team had an opportunity to bond this summer during a team trip to Europe. “We had a lot of injuries, and played four games in five or six days,” states Dávila. “We had just come off of a hard season. It was like a wake up call. We got schooled by the Europeans. They were club teams from Holland, Germany, and Belgium.”
Alyssa realized the importance of the journey. “It was a little rough on the soccer part, but it was really good for our team. A lot of team bonding,” she notes. In a Phil Jackson-esque moment, Khosroshahin split the squad up into groups and gave each a chapter to read from the book “The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All” by Michael Useem. Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, wrote stories of what leaders did when they faced a critical moment in their careers and how the “fate or fortune of others depends on what we do.”
Dávila says, “We stood up in front of the whole team and talked about our chapters.” Her assigned chapter dissected how John Gutfreund, CEO of Wall Street giant Salmon Brothers lost control of his firm in 1991 after he failed to take action against a rogue trader. She adds, “Then we talked about our trip and reflected on what we had learned throughout our time in Europe in terms of culture and how soccer is different over there.”
Alyssa was able to relate the lesson from her story to the recent spate of NCAA sanctions doled out to the Trojan football and basketball programs by the NCAA. Her take home message: “to report something that happens so that it doesn’t get worse in the future.” She states emphatically, “If something is going on that shouldn’t be, address it right away, so it doesn’t get bigger. The communication is so key.”
USC will also be counting on senior striker Megan Ohai (9 points in 2009) and defender Karter Haug to provide the leadership to steer the team through the difficult waters that make up the Pac-10 conference season. There is a trio of goalkeepers, all of whom will be counted on to step in and fill the void left by the departure of All-American Kristin Olsen.
“There are three or four players on our team who have potential to play after graduation. Our coaching staff is amazing,” notes Dávila. “If I were to say this is also what I want to do, then they would help us in any way they can.” She cites as an example Ashley Nick, a 2008 graduate, who got the extra training needed to land a spot on a Dutch soccer club. Dávila would welcome the opportunity to play with a professional squad here or overseas. Also, 2008 Olympic gold-medalist Amy Rodriguez is playing professionally for the Philadelphia Independence However, knowing the uncertainties of reaching that next level, Alyssa plans to apply to graduate school, in order to obtain a masters degree in social work.
A typical day for this student athlete starts with practice from seven to ten in the morning. Then after “grabbing a bite to eat,” it’s off to class until five in the afternoon. Often there are meetings at night, usually from seven to eight, depending on some of the other extracurricular she’s involved in. Alyssa tries to develop a working relationship with the professors in order to make up for missed assignments or tests. Their Friday/Sunday game schedule means that they have to depart for road games on Thursdays and return late on Sunday. Fortunately, they travel by air to the away conference games in the Bay Area, as well as Arizona, Washington, and Oregon.
One of the groups Dávila is involved in is the Trojan Athletic Senate. “We just started this new thing called the ‘golden game.’ We pick one home game, and we try to get all the other athletic teams to come to that game.” Which contest is that? Naturally it is the game against cross-city rival UCLA, a team the Trojans have only beaten once since 1999. That was the NCAA semi-final game.
Dávila comes from a high achieving family. Her father Albert was a WBC Bantam Weight Champion. An older sister is getting a PhD and one brother just finished his masters and is a high school teacher. Another sister moved to Honduras to teach English to fourth through sixth grade, while her twin brother runs track at Oberlin. “We all just set standards for each other. ‘I did this. I got these grades. What are you going to do?’” she says proudly.
Alyssa started playing when she was nine, but migrated to club soccer by age eleven.
“I fell in love with soccer right away, she says. Dávila was also running both cross country and track, but in junior high realized that soccer was her favorite sport. She continued running until her junior year of high school. She would attend cross country practice and then make the hour trip to Newport Beach to train with her soccer club. In her words, “I was getting fatigued all the time.”
Her big growth in soccer came when she began to play on her older sister Brittany’s club team. At first it was due to the convenience of having both daughters playing at the same time. “The coaches really pushed me, they believed in me. They got my confidence up,” says Dávila. But she was almost ready to quit, because she really had the desire to win, and although her teammates were talented, she didn’t think some of them took it seriously enough. Dávila was practically in tears. However, her mom refused to let her quit. At the end of the season, her club entered a tournament where they advanced far and faced the Slammers, one of the top area clubs. The coaches were impressed with her play and when her mom contacted the Slammers coaches about playing for them, they remembered her performance.
Alyssa would go on to play for Slammers FC for five years and in the process won a national championship, four regional titles, and twice was a national runner up. Her teams won multiple SURF Cups, a San Diego-based nationally recognized tourney that attracts well over 300 college coaches and scouts. “We had a lot [of players] from my club team go to Pac-10 schools,” she says matter-of-factly. That includes a friend on Stanford, one at Cal, and another at San Diego who she’ll see on Friday’s opener. In fact, the Slammers’ web site has an alumni list that reads like a who’s who of collegiate soccer teams. Just about every major program or conference is represented by players who graduated high school over the past seven years. One notable graduate is Whitney Engen, formerly of North Carolina, now with the Chicago Red Stars (4th overall pick 2010,) who was called up to the US national team this past spring. One of Dávila’s high school co-captains is at UCLA. She even competed against some of her current teammates in club competition, including red-shirt junior midfielder Ashli Sandoval.
It was with Slammers where she caught the eye of Khosroshahin, who was then coaching at Cal State Fullerton. "I saw Alyssa as a very talented soccer player and an effective player," notes Khosroshahin.
“He recruited me at Fullerton, but I didn’t really want to go there.” She talked with Notre Dame, and nearly made a verbal commitment to the Irish. “I wanted a big school, with good academics, and a good soccer program.” However, her mom encouraged her to apply to USC, because she thought that the Trojans weren’t planning to retain their coach who had not recruited Alyssa. Things fell into place, when Khosroshahin got the job at USC. He renewed his recruitment of Davilla. “Everything just fell into place,” she says. “It was a no brainer.”
He adds, “She has grown tremendously. She is no longer anybody's sidekick. She is the woman in charge.”
special thanks and photo courtesy of USC Sports