The 5-0 nonconference loss was one of those games in which the opponent gets out to a quick lead, nothing goes right and the best you can do is chalk it up to experience, learn from it and move forward. At the time, it was true.
But USD, picked to win the West Coast Conference title in a preseason coaches’ poll, was struggling to find its rhythm, a winning formula during what became a four-game skid.
When head coach Seamus McFadden’s team then lost its WCC opener 2-0 at Santa Clara, the veteran leader — the only USD coach the program’s had in 34 years — knew he had strong players and the talent to be better, but he also knew a change was necessary. He juggled his lineup, changed the Toreros’ 4-3-3 system to a more up-tempo 4-4-2 style. The result?
So far so good.
The team went on an eight-game WCC win streak, scored 22 goals in its next 11 games, finished 9-3 and earned the program’s first conference championship since 2009 with a win over St. Mary’s last Friday.
On Monday, players wore their WCC championship shirts and, along with coaches and team supporters, gathered in Jenny Craig Pavilion’s Warren Hospitality Suite to hear their name called among the 48 teams in the NCAA Division I playoff bracket.
And guess who’ll be the Toreros’ first-round opponent? Cal State Northridge, the Big West Conference champions. The Matadors (15-6 overall) host USD (11-8) at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
“I think it’s a good pick,” said redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Drew Ilijevski of USD drawing Northridge. “I definitely think as a team we want to prove we’re a much better team than we were in the previous game. The morale of our team was down and it was even more so after that loss. It’s a good pick. I think we’re going to come out ready to play and with a lot of heart.”
Count on the Toreros being hungrier simply because the program is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, when nine players on the current team were freshmen.
That year, the Toreros received a first-round bye, played UC Santa Barbara at home, and lost 1-0. For players like Patrick Wallen and Dan Delgado, winning a championship and reaching the playoffs instilled the thought that this could be the norm. But a competitive WCC and some near misses — USD was in contention for the title until the final week last season — kept both out of reach.
Wallen and Delgado said they’re both happy about winning a conference title, but as seniors it’s not enough.
“It’s a great honor to be in the playoffs again and it’s great that there are players who were here in 2009. It’s a fun experience and I’m happy to be sharing this with my teammates and coaches,” said Wallen, who has six goals and two assists in 18 games. “Playing Northridge is what I think everyone was hoping to do. It was a tough loss earlier this season and everyone wants redemption. We were struggling and just beginning to find out what we were good at as a team. There are a lot of good players here and a lot of potential, but we just needed to find all the pieces of the puzzle.”
The system change gave the offense — led by Delgado’s eight goals and five assists for a team-high 21 points — more shots on goal, more creative opportunities and, most importantly, more goals.
“Going from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 was a game changer,” Wallen said. “Everything came together. We all knew how to play and it just came out from all of us.”
The winning streak, which lasted from Sept. 30 to Nov. 2, sufficiently served as a wake-up call that Delgado, the 2011 WCC Player of the Year, said the team needed.
“We’ve gotten a lot better, our chemistry is better, we’re scoring a lot more, and defensively we’re doing our job. Once we got into conference, we started over and started winning,” he said. “Mentally, it helped us a lot. I think we can do better (against Northridge). We’re looking to win in the (NCAA) tournament.”
A victory Thursday sets up a second-round game at sixth-seeded UCLA, which earned a first-round bye, on Sunday at 5 p.m.
Northridge, however, is the sole focus for McFadden and his team. But the confidence that comes with making the postseason can help and, given USD’s rise after a slow start this season, that confidence isn’t in short supply.
“I always believe in our team, I always believe in us,” Wallen said. “I think we can win.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Top photo courtesy of USD Athletics