The Arizona Wildcats soccer team returns to the pitch Friday when they’ll face No. 24 UCF in Tempe in the Sun Devil Desert Classic.
The Knights (2-1) are coming off a stunning upset of No. 4 North Carolina, and Arizona head coach Tony Amato couldn’t be happier — and not because he earned a master’s degree from UCF in 2002.
“We need our opponents to win as many games as we can and then we need to beat them. That’s how you get a good RPI and a good strength of schedule, a good winning percentage to make the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
“So I’m happy for them.”
UCF will be the second ranked team Arizona (1-0-1) has faced this season. The first match produced a favorable result for the Wildcats.
Arizona beat then-No. 16 Oklahoma 2-0 on the road in their season-opener on Aug. 18. However, UA followed that up with a 0-0 draw against UC Irvine last Friday.
The Wildcats outshot the Anteaters 12-3, but couldn’t find the back of the net.
“I think that’s a game we gotta win 1-0,” Amato said. “And UCI, to their credit, did a good job of limiting [our attack].”
Still, Arizona is outshooting opponents 28-8 this season, and has yet to allow a goal, thanks to stellar defense and a few timely saves by junior goalkeeper Lainey Burdett.
“I like the way we’re playing this year,” said UA midfielder Kennedy Kieneker. “I think us playing well against Oklahoma was definitely a huge test, and I think we got a good result of that.
“But the last game was a little trickier getting into the final third and that final pass was hard for us, but I think we’re getting to where we need to get to.”
Temperatures are expected to be well over triple digits at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium this weekend, but Amato said the Wildcats, who practiced in 100-degree heat on Thursday, are going to “embrace that.”
“That part’s not going to be awesome. We’re not going to hide from it and say that it’s not hot,” he said. “We’re going to embrace it and know that we’re going to have to run some (different) substitution patterns. We’re going to have to make sure we’re hydrated. We’re going to have to make sure that we don’t let it get to us mentally.
“It’ll be tough, but it’ll tough for both teams.”
Last season, the Wildcats won three games in Tempe, sweeping Denver and Columbia in the Sun Devil Desert Classic before knocking off in-state rival ASU in their season finale.
After facing UCF on Friday at 4 p.m., the Wildcats will stay in Tempe until Sunday when they will take on Boston University (1-3) at 11 a.m. — yet another match in the scorching Sonoran heat.
“I think it (the heat) is definitely is a big factor in the game,” Kieneker said. “Your legs tend to die a little faster in the heat and getting used to that definitely helps.”
Kieneker an unsung hero
Kieneker, a junior, has played in every game for the Wildcats since arriving at Arizona in 2015.
And while her stat-line may not reflect it — the Redmond, Wash. native has two career goals and one career assist — Kieneker has been instrumental in Arizona’s recent success.
“You can always count on her to be that strong backbone to our midfield,” said UA midfielder Morgan McGarry.
Kieneker’s role is to win headers and 50-50 balls for the Wildcats in the midfield, then distribute the ball forward to set up Arizona’s attack, an attack that finished in the top half of the Pac-12 in shots in both 2015 and 2016.
“If I win 90 percent of the balls in the air, 90 percent of the goal kicks, that makes it seem like I have a good game,” Kieneker said. “Or if I don’t get beat 1-v-1, or if I make a certain number of tackles, I think that’s how I judge (my performance).
“If I miss one, two or three, it’s not a good game.”
Kieneker said she flies under the radar because she does “the little things that you don’t really notice.”
That might be true for someone watching from the stands, but Amato has no trouble spotting Kieneker’s impact.
During the exhibition season, Amato removed Kieneker from a match to rotate in some other players, and things quickly went awry.
“We took her out ... and we noticed a void,” Amato said. “I think she’s that kind of player. Okay, on the stat-sheet there’s not a ton of goals or assists, but when she’s not in there you go ‘why is this now causing us problems?’
“And then you put her back in and we’re fine.”
Kieneker briefly had to exit Friday’s game vs. UC Irvine after bloodying her lip. It was the first time she came off the pitch this season.
The Wildcats hope it’s the last time.
“All the headers that go through [the midfield], all the punts, all the goal kicks, she wins everything in there,” said senior Gabi Stoian. “So she’s a major player for us and we wouldn’t be the same without her.”