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Arizona, playing their ‘best soccer’, to host BYU in non-conference finale

UA coach Tony Amato says Arizona is playing their best soccer since he took over the program in 2013

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

His team’s record might not show it, but Tony Amato believes the Arizona Wildcats are playing their best soccer since he took over as head coach in 2013.

Yes, even better than the 2015 team that appeared in the program’s first Sweet 16.

“When I say it’s the best soccer, it’s in terms of like putting the ball down, attacking quickly, connecting passes, combinations,” Amato said. “We’ve been really good at some other things in the past and so each team is different.”

The Wildcats only have a 2-2-2 record to show for it, though.

They’ve beaten then-No. 16 Oklahoma and Texas Tech, tied UC Irvine and Boston University, and lost to No. 15 UCF and Florida Gulf Coast.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer that that happens to be our record,” said UA goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, who has three shutouts this year. “I think we’ve just been unlucky and haven’t been able to finish shots as well as we’ve been planning [to].”

Arizona is outshooting their opponents 94-37, including a 41-17 edge in shots on goal. But they’re only outscoring opponents 5-4.

“Our record definitely doesn't show how good of soccer we’re playing,” said UA midfielder Gabi Stoian. “If you look at the rest of the stats — shots and the few amount of shots that the other team has — that can give you a better picture, but we just haven’t been able to put the ball in the back of the net as much as we’d like to.”

Amato likes what he sees from Arizona’s high-pressing attack ... until it gets inside the 18-yard box.

“Right now it looks good until the box, and then if we can get inside the box and be dangerous, which we’re working on right now, we can be pretty good,” he said.

“The space is there, we just haven’t been real dynamic getting into the space. We’ve seen it on video and that’s something that we have to get better at.”

The Wildcats split their matches last weekend against Florida Gulf Coast and Texas Tech. They lost to FGCU 1-0 on Friday, despite outshooting the Eagles 19-2.

Arizona then squeaked past the Red Raiders on Sunday thanks to a late goal by Samantha Falasco. They outshot TTU 18-2 in that game.

“I want to win every game we play so I’m not over the moon,” Amato said of his team’s recent play. “(Those are) moral victories, and that’s not really who we are. We don’t want our team to be that.

“But it does feel different. … It feels like we have some traction. The team is interested in growing and developing and getting better each step of the team. When you look through that lens, it’s like it’s fine, we’ll win some games if we keep playing the way we’re playing.”

Arizona hosts BYU on Friday, another team whose record isn’t indicative of their ability.

The Cougars are 1-3-3, but their three losses were to No. 8 Penn State, No. 1 UCLA, and Colorado, who is just outside the top 25.

Last weekend, BYU tied No. 25 Utah and beat Oregon State, 3-0. The Cougars received votes in this week’s coaches poll and were No. 8 in the preseason polls.

BYU has taken roughly the same number of shots as their opponents, but have been outscored 9-6.

“I think their season is very similar to ours,” Amato said. “They’ve played really good teams that they could’ve lost to all of them. They got some really good ties in there, beat a Pac-12 team on the road. When I watch them them play, they’re really good. They have good players, they’re organized, [Jennifer Rockwood] does a good job of coaching them, they just haven’t banged in a ton of goals, and it feels a like lot us.”

Which means...

“Somebody’s season is going to swing here and it’s going to be really important that we force that issue and make sure it’s us who’s on the front foot,” Amato said of Friday’s match.

First kick is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST and it will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.

Arizona begins Pac-12 conference play next Saturday vs. Oregon.

Stoian “day-to-day”

Gabi Stoian, Arizona’s leading scorer, is “day-to-day” with a leg injury that forced her to miss part of the second half vs. Texas Tech on Sunday.

“It’ll kinda be like that for a while because who knows with a muscle,” Amato said of Stoian’s status. “It might feel great tomorrow, then it could tighten up the day after she plays and all that, so we’re going to keep a tight eye on that and see what happens.”

The senior midfielder has scored twice this year and is five goals away from breaking the UA’s all-time record.

Freshmen Jada Talley and Hannah Clifford, along with sophomore Maddie Bennett, stepped in for Stoian vs. Texas Tech.

“A lot of times when your leading scorer goes out, everyone kind of gets a little uptick,” Amato said. “Like ‘oh, now I can score.’ I think we were looking for that and I think that could be a factor if Gabi can’t go tomorrow.”

The fewer, the merrier?

One reason why Arizona could be playing their best soccer is because Amato trimmed the team’s roster from 32 players to 26 players this season.

“We never went 32 deep in a game, so there were more people that aren’t playing, and that can start to become distracting to them in terms of their commitment to getting better,” he said. “When you don’t feel a ton of hope that you’re going to play, it’s hard to give it your all every second.

“We recognized that last year and every group is kind of different, but we added six male practice players this year and just carried a few less to help with that.”

Junior midfielder Kennedy Kieneker said UA’s players are “all a lot closer” this year.

“I think the vibe is a lot better,” she said. “Everybody is friends with everybody."

Age advantage?

Like BYU’s football team, their women’s soccer team is generally older than their competition.

BYU student-athletes often embark on two-year mission trips through the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and an NCAA exemption allows them to stop their five-year eligibility clock until they return.

Thus, BYU student-athletes are often two years older than those they’re competing against — and sometimes even older than that.

For instance, former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was 26 years old when he lined up against Arizona football last season.

“I haven’t looked exactly at it this year, but I assume that it’s every year they have a few that are a bit older,” Amato said of the current BYU team.

How much does that matter?

“It depends on the individuals,” Amato said. “Some years they’ve had girls where it’s like ‘those are women.’ And our 18-year-old that’s still trying to figure it out as a freshman feels a little different than that 23-year-old, so there have been times where I’ve seen them play and I’ve thought that.”

Arizona is 1-11 all-time vs. BYU, with the last match being played in 2012. BYU won that game 1-0.

Scheduling conflicts

Arizona football, volleyball, and soccer start roughly around the same time on Friday night.

Amato moved Arizona’s game vs. Oregon next weekend from Friday to Saturday to avoid lining up with Arizona football’s home game vs. Utah, but said changing the date (or time) of Friday’s game vs. BYU was “not on my radar.”

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “The Oregon one was.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire