The Oregon women’s soccer team has dropped three consecutive matches, two against ranked opponents. They held a second half lead against Oregon State last week, before surrendering back-to-back scores late in the contest. Losing three straight can be the sign of a team in decline, but Ducks head coach Tara Erickson sees reasons why her team is very much on the rise.

“I think we can take a dramatic step forward mentally,” Erickson said. “That OSU loss was more mental than physical … now we need to buckle down and preserve victories.”

The Ducks will stay at home and face No. 16 UCLA (8-4-1) this Friday and No. 19 USC (8-3-2) on Sunday. The Bruins finished their 2009 campaign 21-3-1, including a trip to the Final Four in College Station, Texas. USC competed at above .500 in the conference last season and also earned an NCAA tournament berth. Erickson noted that both teams are dangerous for different reasons.

“UCLA has a more sophisticated attack just because of (junior) Sydney Leroux,” Erickson said. “But USC is more balanced and they’re also capable of throwing five or six players forward in their attack.”

UCLA’s eight wins are due in large part to Leroux. Widely recognized as one of the most dangerous forwards in college soccer, Leroux is a member of the U.S. National Team. Her 23 goals last season tied her for the Bruins single-season record and she totaled 48 points on the year.

This season, Leroux missed three matches in favor of national team duties. Nevertheless, she still paces the team in scoring with seven goals. Situating a solid game plan to shut down a player like Leroux can be a daunting task, but Erickson knows her team is capable of catching the Bruins.

“Having just played No. 1 Stanford, they could bring anything,” Erickson acknowledged. “UCLA has played a system with one star player for a long time, so we know they center everything on Leroux.”

The Trojans most recently won one of two matches in the Bay Area, facing No. 1 Stanford and No. 8 Cal in the same weekend. USC’s last outing produced a 5-4 overtime win in the contest against Cal, a final score Erickson sought to elaborate on.

“USC is a young team which feeds of the emotion of their coach,” Erickson said. “He’s very emotional and we need to be able to block that out.”

That coach is Ali Khosroshahin. In his fourth year leading the program, Khosroshahin already has one national championship and three NCAA tournament appearances on his resume. Erickson also praised freshman Elizabeth Eddy, who contributed a hat trick in the win at Cal.

The freshman paces her team with five goals and three assists. Eddy is also a member of the United States U-20 National Team. Despite the acumen, however, Erickson is confident that her team can chip away at the Trojans.

“They bring a lot of firepower,” Erickson said. “But it also leaves them vulnerable to a counterattack.”

The Ducks launched swift counterstrikes against both Portland and Oregon State in their most recent contests, however making it a consistent theme has been difficult. Oregon freshman Brynne Konkel sees a great deal of potential in her team.

“We should have won that OSU game and we were the better team physically,” Konkel said. “If we connect together for a full 90 minutes, we can beat anybody.”

UCLA and USC are far ahead of Oregon statistically. The Trojans are tied for No. 78 in scoring offense, with 1.85 goals per game, while UCLA is No. 88 with 1.77 goals per match and Oregon is tied for No. 130 with a 1.5 average. UCLA allows only 0.74 goals against per contest, USC averages .96 a game, and Oregon allows 1.26 per match.

All season, Erickson preached finishing at the net. Now that her team is scoring more goals, the focus has shifted to playing tough for a full 90 minutes. Sophomore Kelsey Hones pointed to the Oregon State loss as evidence that her team is improving.

“We have endurance and our team is very fit,” Hones said. “We just need to stick to our game plan because we know we have something special and we need to capitalize on that.”

Oregon takes on UCLA Friday night at 7 p.m. then USC on Sunday at 1 p.m.

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