Two years ago, the Arizona soccer team picked up an early-season win against a formidable Santa Clara team, and head coach Tony Amato thought that victory ignited his team’s eventual run to the Sweet 16.
“It felt like that just propelled us on with a new belief,” the Arizona head coach said.
Fast forward to 2017, and the Wildcats are in a similar situation, only this time Arizona beat No. 16 Oklahoma on the road in their season opener.
“When we won that game (against Santa Clara) it was like ‘we could be good,’ and I think the OU game felt very similar,” Amato said.
In 2016, Arizona wasn’t as fortunate and lost at Pepperdine in their season opener. The Wildcats wound up missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.
“Every year, everyone is wondering how good we are. ... When you lose your first game, it feels like you don’t have that extra bump from the beginning,” Amato said. “And it doesn’t mean you have to win all your first games, but it definitely helps when you do.”
Especially in the fashion in which Arizona beat Oklahoma. The Wildcats outshot the Sooners 16-5 and won 2-0 in Norman. And the score wasn’t even indicative to how close the game was.
“It starts with our defending,” Amato said. “Our forwards are working and closing space and that leads to chances for everybody. In the OU game, we created quite a few. And we probably left a goal or two on the table in that game.”
Now, the Wildcats are looking to carry over that momentum to Friday when they will face UC Irvine in their home opener — another key non-conference game.
UC Irvine went 13-7-2 last season, including a win over Oregon, and finished fourth in the Big West. They lost a close 2-1 game to No. 19 Cal in their season opener last week.
“They have a lot of local California players who are dangerous and definitely can cause us some problems, so we’re definitely going to have to bring our ‘A’ game and play well or we won’t win,” Amato said.
The Big West conference may not amount to much in college basketball or other sports, but it’s one of the better conferences in college soccer.
“If you’re not at a Power Five school, you probably want to be in that league because you can get really good local products,” Amato said.
“They all do really well. It’s one of the few (leagues) that get multiple bids. They don’t have to win their conference tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament so it’s a dangerous league and we know they’ll be good.’
Amato said a team’s strength of schedule is “massive” to earning an NCAA Tournament bid, and having UC Irvine on the schedule only helps, especially if the Wildcats can pick up another quality win.
“We have the hardest strength of schedule in the Pac-12 this year and a top-10 strength of schedule in the country, so when you’re faced with that, you gotta win some games early so the team believes and gets some momentum,” Amato said. “And if we can maneuver this part of the season, it will set us up nicely.”
A win over Oklahoma is certainly a good start, and a victory like that could manifest into more success like it did in 2015.
“It gives us the confidence going in that we know that we have the ability to win these games,” said UA midfielder Gabi Stoian.
Friday’s game vs. UC Irvine is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST, and it will be live streamed here.
Wildcats receive votes in coaches poll
After beating Oklahoma, Arizona received 13 votes in the United Soccer Coaches Poll, making them the No. 37 team in the country.
But who is one spot ahead of them with 17 votes? Oklahoma.
“It’s strange, right?” Amato said. “I don’t understand it, and it’s a shame because when you see those, it just [lowers] the credibility of it all.
“How did we receive votes but we’re not ranked top 15 in the region? It doesn’t seem to be very connected. I try not to get caught up in that, but you just wonder, when you are able to get ranked how much value is in it? I’m not sure.”
Which is why Amato favors a different metric to evaluate his team.
“We really just focus in on making the NCAA Tournament and the first thing is being one of those 33 at-large teams and the first thing they look at is RPI,” he said.
Five teams in the Pac-12 are currently ranked in the top 25, while Colorado, Arizona, and Washington State received votes.
Falasco named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week
Arizona sophomore defender Samantha Falasco was the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Week.
Falasco, a centerback, helped limit the Sooners to just five shots last Friday.
“She was good last year as a freshman, but I never felt like she was totally healthy. It was like play two games, miss two games,” Amato said.
Falasco missed five games with a shin injury last season, but scored the game-winning goal against ASU in the season finale.
“I feel like she’s in a good place this year,” Amato said. “She got that experience last year on top of being a good player, and now being a year more experienced and healthy, I think she’ll have a really big season for us.”
After only playing in four games last year, Morgan McGarry has broken into Arizona’s starting lineup in her redshirt sophomore season.
“Last spring I dedicated myself to becoming faster, and strong as I could be,” McGarry said. “... I really just wanted to say that this is my year and this is my time to go and it’s been great so far.”
McGarry was listed as a midfielder last year and played attacking center-mid in high school, but has thrived after a position change.
McGarry played the full 90 minutes against Oklahoma, and alternates between wingback and centerback, giving Amato flexibility to change formations.
“Who is that girl?” Amato joked. “She committed herself to strength and conditioning, and just got confident from that and embraced her position change role and I think her confidence just grew from being fitter, stronger, and faster and that goes a long way and that’s carried her to this point.
“You still have to go out and play well, which she’s done so far, and I think that increases her confidence and it looks like she’ll have a good season for us.”
Freshman defender Sabrina Enciso has been another newcomer on the Wildcats’ back line this season.
Enciso, from Moreno Valley, Calif., played the full 90 against Oklahoma.
“She’s a good defender, athletic,” Amato said. “You’re not sure with a new freshman in the back, but she’s answered the call so far and I think she’ll just get better.”
The Wildcats no longer have the personnel to do flip throw-ins, which they became known for, but having Enciso helps mitigate that loss.
“She throws it just as far,” Amato said. “So that’s an important piece to utilize on set pieces.”