The Ducks, beneficiaries of their university’s quarter system, don’t start school until Sept. 25, so soccer is their No. 1 priority right now.
“They’re like pro players, man,” joked Arizona head coach Tony Amato, who believes it’s an advantage for Oregon.
“I’m sure they feel like they can accomplish a lot soccer-wise.”
If it is an advantage, the Ducks have put it to good use, entering Saturday’s Pac-12 opener with a 6-2 record and winners of five of their last six games — a sizable improvement from the 8-10-2 record they posted last year.
“They’ve been kind of an up-and-down team, but I think they’re doing better than they have in the past,” said UA forward Charlotte Brascia.
Oregon beat Arizona in Eugene last year, but the Wildcats won in Tucson the year before that.
“It’s an even matchup, and the way it’s played out the last few years, whoever had the moment in the game to score the goals was the one who came out on top,” Amato said. “So I think the game could play out similarly where it’s back-and-forth. Both teams are equal matchups and who’s able to capitalize on the opportunities that they create (will be the key).”
Amato singled out Oregon forward Marissa Everett as a dangerous player. The junior leads the Ducks in shots (20), goals (3), and assists (3).
As a team, Oregon is fourth in the Pac-12 in shots, and has only allowed one goal in their last four games.
“They’re solid in a lot of areas, but she’s someone who two years ago was an All-Pac-12 Freshman player, so we’ll definitely have to make sure we neutralize her,” Amato said. “They like to try and spread you out and get the ball wide and switch the point of attack, so defensively we’re going to have to keep them on one side of the field, put them under some pressure and try and get them to turn the ball over.”
Arizona (3-2-2) is looking for their third straight win after finishing nonconference play with dramatic one-goal wins over Texas Tech and BYU.
“The last game gave us motivation and hope and made us more excited going into Pac-12, knowing that we can beat good teams,” said UA forward Cali Crisler.
Which is all Arizona will be facing from here on out, starting at 7 p.m. on Saturday vs. Oregon.
Five teams in the Pac-12 are ranked in the Top 25, including UCLA and Stanford, who are the top two teams in the nation, and two others are receiving votes.
The Pac-12, quite simply, is the top conference in college soccer.
“We know everyone is going to be strong and fit,” Crisler said. “There won’t be one bad player or one bad team out there. We know it’s going to be a challenge.”
Brascia, now a senior, said she was “in shock” when she played in her first Pac-12 match.
“People always said it was so different, but just how fast we play, how aggressive, how physical everyone is, it’s a completely different game,” she said.
Amato felt similarly after his first season at Arizona in 2013. Previously, he was the head coach at Stephen F. Austin of the Southland Conference.
His SFA teams often played regional powers like Texas A&M or LSU, which are of similar caliber to Pac-12 schools, but they weren’t playing those schools every single weekend.
“Once you get into the Pac-12, it’s week after week after week there’s no taking a deep breath,” Amato said. “You better bring your A-game all the time. At SFA, we didn’t feel that every week. It was like ‘that was a B-performance and we were fine.’
“A B-performance now, we’d get kicked in the teeth.”
Arizona will likely be without leading scorer Gabi Stoian on Saturday. The senior midfielder is dealing with a leg injury and missed last week’s game vs. BYU.
Stoian is six goals away from breaking UA’s all-time record, and currently leads the Pac-12 in shots per game (4.67).
“We know we need to step up and fill that role and go above what we normally do,” Crisler said.
With a rare Saturday night home game on the schedule (thanks to Arizona football playing Friday), the Wildcats are trying to break their all-time attendance record vs. Oregon.
Because why not?
“Pac-12 opener, Saturday night has a different feel, sometimes it’s hard to fill the stands every game when you play Sundays at noon and things like that,” Amato explained. “So if you can identify a few games and really get people to come to that and have a good experience, then you feel like that’ll have a trickle-down effect for the other games.”
The current attendance record was set on Nov. 7, 2016 when Arizona hosted ASU. 1,302 people packed the Mulcahy Stadium stands that night.
“There’s no better feeling than having a full stadium,” Brascia said.
“It gets us motivated and helps us get going for the game,” added Crisler. “Having all those people there, we want to show them what we can do and make them proud to be an Arizona fan.”
Arizona and Oregon both played Oklahoma and UC Irvine during the nonconference season.
The Wildcats beat Oklahoma 2-0 and tied UC Irvine 0-0, while the Ducks beat Oklahoma 1-0, but lost to UC Irvine 1-0.
Amato watches film from those games to “paint a picture” of what Saturday’s game vs. Oregon could look like.
“You just watch and see how it played out, how they did against those teams compared to how we did,” he said.
“You just try and get some pictures, especially the individual players. Sometimes on video it’s hard to tell how fast that player is. And when you know the other matchup because you saw it live, you can compare some of those things.”
One of Crisler’s good friends, Abby Morrow, is a midfielder for Oregon.
“Playing against her is always fun,” Crisler said.
That type of familiarity is quite common throughout the Pac-12 — another reason why conference play is so revered among players.
“I have friends from my club team on almost all the Pac-12 teams, so seeing them and playing against them makes it fun and competitive,” Crisler said. “We all want to beat each other.”
Five Wildcats were honored for their 2016-17 academic achievement at Friday’s Arizona football game.
From left to right: Redshirt freshman defender Tia Painilainen, sophomore goalkeeper Meredith Reinhardt, senior midfielder Gabi Stoian, sophomore defender Leah Carillo, and sophomore defender Zoe Barrie.
The good news is that they probably didn’t stick around to see Arizona lose to Utah.
“They need to start working their way out of there at halftime,” Amato said Thursday.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire