Soccer is back at Mulcahy Stadium.
On Saturday, the Arizona soccer team will host its first match of the spring season, taking on the UTEP Miners in its second of five spring games.
Arizona beat GCU 1-0 in Phoenix in its first spring game on March 4, as a late goal by Zoe Barrie allowed the Wildcats to capture a road victory.
“We had one game that was a little slower than expected, but we’re hoping that this game goes a little smoother,” said UA midfielder Gabi Stoian, who has led Arizona in points in each of the last three seasons.
UTEP went 13-7-2 in the fall, placing seventh in Conference USA, but Arizona head coach Tony Amato said it’s hard to evaluate opposing teams in the spring.
“In the spring, everyone’s different,” he explained. “You can’t really figure out a scouting report because seniors aren’t playing, you don’t know who’s injured, they really haven’t played a lot of games, they haven’t played a lot of games in the spring.”
As a result, Amato uses the spring season to focus on the inner workings of his team instead.
“I just go in looking at ‘can some of our players play in different roles, different situations?,’” he said. “In the spring, you want to make sure you get some other competition other than playing yourself in training because it gives you a better picture.”
The Wildcats graduated six seniors, all of which were key players. The spring season is an opportune time to see which returning players are capable of filling their void.
“I just want to see if people can play in different roles, can we do different formations, can we do some different tactics that we could figure out if we could use them in the fall or not,” Amato said. “And sometimes we go ‘we can’t do that. Throw that out.’”
There will be plenty of schematic and lineup changes throughout the spring season, but one thing will remain constant— the Wildcats are playing to win, even if the results don’t count in the record books..
“In the fall, it’s purely focused on scouting and winning the next game,” Amato said. “In the spring, [I] do not fall in the category of coaches that go ‘oh, spring games we’re just kind of just playing.’ I don’t fall in that category. We’re trying to win. We want our players to know that when we play we’re trying to win.
“We are still trying to win, but it’s definitely a little different than it is in the fall. The girls know it’s not playing for the Pac-12 Championship.”
Saturday’s match will consist of two 30-minute halves (instead of the usual 45-minute halves) plus penalty kicks, regardless of the score at the end of regulation.
“I’m excited,” said UA defender Samantha Falasco. “I think our home games are always a lot of fun.”
First kick is set for 4 p.m., and admission is free.
Amato said that if Arizona basketball had advanced to the Elite Eight (and thus would have played around 3 p.m. on Saturday) he was prepared to change the kickoff time to avoid any potential conflicts.
“I was going to move the time,” he said. “I was ready to try to move the gametime. We set it up so long ago, I wasn’t even thinking about that. And I was like ‘crap, that’s going to be right around the game’ so I was like ‘ah, I’ll just move it.’”
But that won’t be needed after all.
If you look at the Wildcats’ spring schedule in its entirety, you will notice that all of their opponents are teams from the Southwest.
That’s because the NCAA does not allow teams to fly for spring games.
“That’s a rule,” Amato said. “So you have to play teams that are drivable. And you just try to see who’s available on what weekends in a drivable radius. This year it worked out that we were able to get a couple home games or stay within the state. Other years we have to drive to San Diego or Albuquerque just to make sure the team gets some competition in and we can evaluate where we are.”
After Saturday’s game, the Wildcats have three more spring games. One against NAU in Phoenix, then a pair of games against New Mexico and New Mexico State in Tucson on consecutive days.
“You’re allowed to play five different gamedays and sometimes it doesn’t work out that you get five,” Amato said. “So it really just depends year to year on everyone’s schedule. There’s a lot of recruiting that goes on in the spring, so some people have weekends where they can’t play and we have weekends where we can’t play. And then you throw in spring break and suddenly you have maybe five or six open weekends to get those five games. It doesn’t always play out.”
It did this time and Arizona plans to take advantage of it.
“[In the] spring, you’re looking to get stronger and get tougher and just mold together as a team,” Stoian said. “With the seniors being gone, [you] know that this is the team that you’ll have for the fall. It’s just our time to grow and come together to build on what we have.”
Arizona was 9-9-1 overall this past season with a 4-7 conference record, finishing in seventh place in the always-difficult Pac-12 Conference.
And despite winning three of their last four games, including a rivalry win over ASU in Tempe, the Wildcats failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire