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Arizona soccer hosts Washington with NCAA Tournament bid in sight

An NCAA Tournament bid would be extra special this year for a couple reasons

UA midfielder Kennedy Kieneker
Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats are on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years, and an appearance this season would be especially gratifying.

For one, Arizona has never made the tournament three times in a four-year span.

For another, Arizona hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament under head coach Tony Amato without the use of flip throw-ins, a form of offense often seen as a gimmick by “soccer purists,” as Amato calls them.

“I feel like we’ve proved ourselves in the way that we don’t need the flip-throw to be able to score,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera. “Of course it helps and set pieces are extremely important for our team, but the flip throw itself doesn’t define our scoring chances or define our team.”

For a while there, it did. Or at least it did in some folks’ eyes. And they didn’t like it.

“We defended a lot of the time and we were set-piece oriented and had flip-throws,” Amato said. “And some of our competitors didn’t love that. There were critics of that.”

Flip-throws are no longer part of Arizona’s arsenal — the players who performed them are no longer with the program and it’s not a skill Amato’s staff teaches — but that hasn’t slowed down the Wildcats. Not even a little bit.

Arizona is 7-4-4 overall and 4-2-2 in the always-difficult Pac-12 conference, placing them fifth in the conference standings.

They’ve beaten then-No. 11 Cal, and tied then-No. 1 UCLA for the first time in school history.

With more talent than ever this season, Arizona is playing more possession-oriented. Flip-throws were the antithesis of that in a sense, since they turned throw-ins into 50-50 balls.

“I think moving away from the flip-throws helped us keep better possession — actually build up an attack instead of hoping that it works out and falls in our favor,” said UA midfielder Kennedy Kieneker.

“I think we kind of relied on them, and now that we don’t have it, we’ve found even better ways to get forward.”

While Arizona has had difficulty finishing their chances at times this season, they’ve had no trouble creating them.

The Wildcats are averaging the fourth-most shots per game in the Pac-12.

“I think we’ve been doing a really good job of creating opportunities, and I think through these last couple training sessions we have, (the focus) is making sure the ball goes in the net,” said Aguilera, who is second on the team in shots and shots on-goal. “It doesn’t matter who. Just make sure those opportunities come and we finish them.

“I think that’s going to be important in these last three games because they’re all winnable games. We just have to make sure we put in the work and execute all the chances we get.”

Arizona is currently 24th in the RPI. If the season ended today, not only would they be in the NCAA Tournament, they would likely host a first-round match.

But three regular season matches remain, starting with a game against the Washington Huskies on Thursday at 7 p.m. PT in Tucson.

Washington (9-6-2, 2-4-2 Pac-12) has lost three straight, but that’s excusable since they’ve played three vaunted California schools — No. 1 Stanford, No. 6 USC, and No. 2 UCLA — in a row.

"You set those last couple games they’ve had aside. Those are always bonuses,” Amato said of UW.

“They’re really good. They beat Florida earlier in the year. Anytime you go up against the best teams in the country, which they just did, you may not get wins. I think they probably feel confident they can win the rest of their games.”

The Huskies have the fourth-best goals-against average in the Pac-12, and are led by two dynamic forwards in Shannon Simon and Kimberly Keever, who overwhelmingly lead UW in shots.

“We definitely have to stop those two,” Amato said. “… We know it’s going to be tough, but their attack focuses on Simon and Keever.”

Washington beat Arizona in Seattle last season in a game Amato says he would like to forget.

Simon buried an early penalty kick to help propel the Huskies to a 2-1 win.

“I actually went back and watched a little bit of it and it brought back some of the memories of that game,” Amato said. “We got it wrong from a lot of avenues. I don’t think the team was dialed in that day. I don’t think the gameplan was very good, so hopefully we have a better picture this year.”

Amato has said he thinks Arizona needs to finish over .500 to make the NCAA Tournament, so avoiding a similar fate to the Huskies would be paramount.

“I think we’re a completely different team this year, though,” Kieneker said. “The way we play is completely different.”

No more flip-throws, for one.

“Now it feels like if we go to the tournament without flip-throws,” Amato said, “you wonder what the critics would come up with now.”

“It starts with Lainey”

While Arizona’s attack has been a bright spot this season, so has the defense.

The Wildcats have allowed 12 goals in 15 games this year, two of which were PKs.

UA goalkeeper Lainey Burdett has tallied six shutouts and is third in the Pac-12 in saves (64).

“It starts with Lainey,” Amato said. “We have a really good goalkeeper, so that sets the tone and I think our backs have developed some chemistry where they feel good working together. That helps.”

Arizona has used the same backline all season, a quartet of Morgan McGarry, Sabrina Enciso, Brandi Park, and Samantha Falasco.

Occasionally, Amato will add Leah Carillo in there as a fifth defender when Arizona faces teams with potent attacks.

“And everyone in front of them defends really hard, and we defend to win the ball which sometimes bites us because we’ve given up a few PKs that way,” Amato said. “But I think when you’re not passive defensively, it looks how the group’s defended this year, and that goes a long way.”

Kelcey Cavarra and Kennedy Kieneker anchor the midfield, playing nearly every minute of the season.

“They’re just so reliable and dependable. You know they’re going to work hard. You know what you’re going to get every game from them,” Amato said. “And as a coach that goes a long way. I know those two are winners, reliable, dependable good players that are going to grind it out and that’s why I feel like if you take them off the field, something changes a little bit. You maybe can’t put your finger on it, but they’re important for us.”

Part of the reason why Arizona has been able to become more possession-oriented is because of Cavarra and Kieneker, who say they complement each other well.

“We know that they’re better in the air than most of the teams that we play against, so we anticipate them winning the ball and then we have to pick up the second ball and play from there,” Aguilera said.

“I think them being able to win the first ball, and knowing they can win the first ball, helps us settle the ball down and possess it more.”

Senior celebration

Even though the Wildcats host ASU next weekend to wrap up the regular season, they are hosting a dinner to commemorate their seniors this Friday before their Sunday match vs. Washington State.

“It’s an early celebration for the seniors to not leave it up to one ASU game, but to really celebrate our seniors a week early and show that we appreciate them for all the hard work they’ve done,” said Aguilera, a redshirt freshman.

This senior class has the chance to become the first in school history to make the NCAA Tournament three times.

“I hope we can send them out with a bang,” said Cavarra, a sophomore. “A really big bang.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire