How USC soccer’s Croix Bethune became one of the best players

A name has been at the top of every scouting report since Hannah White was 7 years old.

Croix Bethune.

White, a USC forward who grew up in the Atlanta area at clubs rivaling Bethune, recalled coaches focusing on the small midfielder. Don’t let Bethune get the ball, don’t let her face up, and most importantly, the coaches said, don’t let her score.

It was all easier said than done.

“No matter how small she is, she was able to perform,” said White, who is now reaping the benefits of having Bethune on her team.

The 5-foot-3 midfielder, who starred in youth leagues and junior national teams, carried the responsibility of being a star on her narrow shoulders, with resilience and style that set the tone for No. 15 USC. Bethune leads the Trojans (9-2-3, 5-1-2 Pac-12) with seven goals and eight assists. With 1.69 points per game, she ranks second in the Pac-12, where USC is third overall behind UCLA and Stanford.

Bethune started the season as the country’s top drawer soccer player and was one of five active varsity players included in the US women’s national team’s preliminary lineup for the CONCACAF Championship. With the national spotlight and the full attention of every opposing defense, Bethune remains unfazed.

“I don’t feel any pressure because pressure builds strength,” Bethune said. “You have to love pressure to be great.”

Bethune was selected as a first-team consensus All-American last year and a semifinalist for the Hermann Award, which honors college football’s greatest player. As a junior, Bethune had 16 goals with 10 assists. Her 16 goals were the third-most for a single season in school history.

When she took over as head coach this season, Jane Alukonis knew she wanted to maintain USC’s history of high-scoring offense and attacking style in transition. She knew she needed a special player who could connect passes and create chances.

Bethune was a perfect fit.

Sometimes Bethune sets up teammates with a cheeky backheel or a perfectly placed chipshot over defenders. In a game against Oregon last year, Bethune drew oohs and aahs from an opposing crowd when she deflected off a blocked shot and balanced the ball on her forehead while waiting for her teammates to get into attacking position.

“That creativity is something I can’t always hold onto,” Alukonis said. “You always wonder where that came from, but it’s obviously just a gift.”

Living in England for three and a half years cemented Bethune’s love of football. There were no girls’ teams, so she played with boys from age 4 until her parents, who were both Air Force, returned to Georgia.

Balancing basketball and soccer through high school, Bethune turned to soccer after tearing her cruciate ligament while training with the U17 national team in 2018. It was the first time in her career that she had sustained a serious injury. It cost her the chance to play at this year’s U17 Women’s World Cup.

“It put me in a kind of dark corner because I couldn’t play football anymore, could do something I wanted to do,” Bethune said. “It was just taken away from me. I also realized how much I love the sport and that nothing can be taken for granted.”

Bethune tore her ACL again before her first season of training at USC, another debilitating blow to the No. 1 recruit in the country who had dreams of making a quick difference. It wasn’t until the spring of 2021, after the pandemic delayed the 2020 season, that Bethune made her collegiate debut. She recorded two assists in a win over BYU.

The performance drew the attention of the opposing coaches. Alukonis, a former UCLA assistant, recalled during a staff meeting when a fellow coach called Bethune, who still played with a bulky left leg brace, “one of the best players in college football.”

“She’s the player that catches your eye,” said Alukonis, who is now in her first season as a USC coach.

USC Soccer's Croix Bethune plays during a game against California on October 28, 2021.

USC Soccer’s Croix Bethune plays during a game against California on October 28, 2021.

(Jenny Chuang)

The free-flowing football format suits Bethune’s quiet, creative personality, which also finds expression in poetry, art and fashion. Bethune’s striking playing style on the field is like “night and day” compared to her reserved personality off the field, White said.

While Bethune is beginning to open up to her longtime youth football rivals, Bethune has been reserved in most conversations. The two-year-old captain is not “extremely vocal,” said Alukonis, but commands the respect of her team-mates with her consistent performance on the field from every position.

She thrives as an attacking midfielder with mobility, but Bethune doesn’t hesitate when injury or substitution forces a move into defensive midfield. Though celebrated for her technique and finesse on offense, the undersized Bethune, who lives up to her “heart over height” mantra, is also proud of her senior national team defense.

“She’s one who carries a lot on her shoulders,” Alukonis said, “but doesn’t show it.”

Bethune doesn’t shy away from big moments. Aaliyah Farmer, involved in a defensive struggle against Arizona on October 6, was dragged into the box and gave USC a penalty that could have broken the goalless tie.

Bethune, who was a perfect three-on-three in penalty shootouts during her collegiate career, stepped forward and put in a hard shot to the right of the goaltender. Hope Hinsey from Arizona saved it. Stunned, the USC defense gave up a goal two minutes later and the Trojans conceded their first conference loss.

That weekend, Alukonis recalled Bethune’s mother saying she wished her daughter wasn’t so hard on herself. Alukonis sympathized and texted Bethune that night.

“You still know that you will lead this team as far as possible,” it said in part. “We have full confidence in you.”

Bethune reacted as best she could. She scored two goals in six minutes in the next game and led the Trojans to victory. How USC soccer’s Croix Bethune became one of the best players

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