Confident Mills key for USC’s Championship
I ran into USC assistant coach Jason Lockhart at a U.S. U15 Boys National Team camp in the summer of 2015. He was out there to scout some players for an MLS Academy.
We discussed his college team and the upcoming season. Lockhart was pretty bullish about the group and the incoming recruits. I told him that USC needed to win the win the title in 2015 because once Mallory Pugh arrived in Westwood in 2016, the Bruins would be dominant.
“We’ll see,” he replied with a confident smirk.
Turns out, he was right all along. The USC coaching staff had a plan in place to make a championship team in 2016 when they arrived on campus three years ago.
While there were plenty of doubters along the way (myself included), the Trojans realized their dream on Sunday with a 3-1 win over West Virginia in the National Championship game at Avaya Stadium.
College teams that end up playing December usually do a lot of things well, but they are typically great at one thing. USC’s defining trait was their confidence. From the coaching staff to the last player on the bench, there was a strong self-belief in this team that they were great and they had the pieces to beat anyone on their best day.
That type of assurance in yourself and your teammates is what drew transfers Morgan Andrews, Leah Pruitt, and Sammy Jo Prudhomme to USC. It’s also the starting point for knowing that playing your style is vastly more important than figuring out what the other team is going to do.
On Sunday, the Trojans played the way they wanted to play and they won because of it. The USC coaching staff stuck with the 4-4-2 formation and ended up out-numbered in the center of the field against the Mountaineers. They adjusted in the second half and played with more of a diamond with the wide players pinched in, but the adjustment was minor. Kayla Mills and Andrews handled the job of playing against the three and led the Trojans to the win.
It is rare in the women’s game in the U.S. for a team to properly utilize a defensive midfielder. The U.S. Women’s National Teams tend to prefer an attacking midfielder for that role, which leaves plenty of holes in the center of the field. The college game almost entirely bypasses that part of the field with direct play over the top or through the channels.
The Trojans found their defensive midfielder in converted defender Kayla Mills. The senior was magnificent for much of the game on Sunday. She was in the right places and made a number of timely interceptions. She was very good at distributing the ball. It certainly helped that Andrews had a terrific game as well, but Mills provided that simple pass that really set USC apart from the other three teams in San Jose at College Cup. Mills’ execution of the game plan from the defensive midfielder role made USC very difficult to breakdown.
While the Trojans were outshot in both games in San Jose, the Trojans limited the chances from the center of the field. The shots came off crosses or broken plays down the channels. The Trojans, statistically, were not dominant in either game, but they did control the game and where it was played.
Mills was a major reason why they found that success. She plugged holes. Her positioning allowed center backs Ally Prisock and Mandy Freeman to show off their athleticism and cut off passes into target forwards and make runs forward.
When the Trojans had possession, Mills was one of the best at adjusting her body so she could receive the ball and then play a quality pass to a teammate. Her off-the-ball movement showed that she is an incredibly intelligent player.
It was not a perfect game from the senior though. When the Trojans struggled, she was not seeing any of the ball. She was hidden under the blanket of pressure from the Mountaineers and struggled to get touches for a long stretch of the game. She fell victim to the moment on a couple of occasions with long balls forward despite lacking a target.
However, she always returned to the style that made her successful through the season, which made her an integral part in the game-winning goal. The smart positioning, the timely tackle, the lay-off for Andrews, it was all on display as her teammates raced toward the winning tally. Mills, an unheralded star, was one of the most important players for the Trojans on Sunday.
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