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Q&A: Tony Amato on what’s next for Arizona soccer, recruiting, facility upgrades, goalkeepers, and more

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Minutes after the Arizona Wildcats lost a heartbreaker to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Tony Amato sat at the podium in the dark film room at UT’s Regal Soccer Stadium with his sights already set on the 2019 season.

“Honestly, we hit the reset button now,” the UA coach said at the time. “The seniors move on and you start all over. You just don’t know what the next journey is going to look like, and so you just start the process of every single day trying to get a little better.

“Literally, we’ll start the process tomorrow and find a way to get better.”

That is hardly an exaggeration. The Wildcats returned from Knoxville, Tennessee on Nov. 17 and the UA coaching staff immediately got back to work, criss-crossing the country in search of the next generation of Arizona soccer players.

This past weekend, that included a stop in Lakewood Ranch, Florida for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Winter Showcase, where the top club teams in the country competed. The UA staff has also attended major events in San Diego and Los Angeles.

“We don’t have a chance to have time off yet because we have a dead period from December 15 to January 5, where we can’t recruit,” Amato said. “But literally right when the season ends, we’re on the recruiting trail. And that is also a time that we’re meeting with all the current players on the roster to wrap up the season, give them additional feedback, and then what the plan is for them moving forward and just kind of wrap up all those loose ends that you come off the season from. So that combined with recruiting means that you don’t take a deep breath until December 15.”

Fortunately, Amato had some time in his busy schedule to talk to me about a host of topics from recruiting to facility upgrades to goalkeeping to what’s ahead in 2019.

Here is how that conversation went.

So what age groups are you mostly recruiting at this point?

So we have our ‘19 class signed, the ‘20 class is secured with verbal commitments, and the ‘21 class has three verbal commitments in it. So we are focused on adding to the ‘21 class and evaluating the ‘22 class so that our board has a Top 25 that we will start chipping away at and getting more evaluations, learning about them, getting them to ID camps, kind of building relationships with them.

(Note: Amato went more in-depth about the 2019 class, and you can read about that group here.)

Is this one of the most active times for recruiting?

We hit the dead period and then it’s all open the rest of the year. You are always recruiting. I mean, even when we are in season we are (recruiting). Like, when we go to L.A. for example this past season to play USC and UCLA, we were out recruiting.

We train the team, coach the team, we have a rental car, we’re shooting over to watch a practice. You have to do those things in order to get evaluations on players and have a presence out in those places. You have to have a presence in L.A. and places you’re recruiting.

The 2022 recruits are freshmen in high school, so what is it like recruiting players that young?

It’s what it’s been. It’s hard simply because you don’t know what they are going to look like in terms of how good of a player they are going to be, how mature they are going to be, what their grades are like, all those things. And I always laugh when I read NFL articles about this person was a draft bust. I’m like, okay, the NFL franchise has all these scouts, they are spending millions of dollars on evaluating juniors and seniors in college and they are missing. Me, Paul (Nagy) and Kate (Norton) are evaluating ninth grade girls, so that’s a pretty difficult task, but that’s what the job is. You have to do it and you have to be more right than wrong.

How is the reception your staff gets now on the recruiting trail compare to when you first got here six seasons ago?

Well, we have tangible winning results. So in the beginning, it was a leap of faith. It was very much like, ‘okay, we are going to win, here’s how we’re going to win, come on board and help us do that.’ And now we can actually connect the dots to we’ve grown the program, we have tangible results, we’ve gone to NCAA Tournaments, we’ve gone to the second round or better four times in five years. Those are things that really help convince them that you’re going to be in NCAA Tournaments and a part of winning teams and winning seasons and now be a part of that, help us grow in that and make that even better.

So that’s one of the biggest things. That’s changed the overall brand of Arizona soccer, so that’s been pretty important. I think that tied into the fact that we’re in the Pac-12 which everyone knows, at least in the West Coast footprint, that that’s a big deal.

What was your takeaway from last season? Was it that you are close to taking that next step as a program and making the Sweet 16 or that you still have a ways to go?

I think it’s all the above. There are some areas that you feel like we have a lot of work to do in that area. And then there’s some areas that you feel like you’re good enough to compete with anyone. And then there’s some other areas that we were close and we got to get a little better in that area. So overall, we want to go as far as we can in the tournament. We’ve reached a Sweet 16 since we’ve been here. We just missed out on that, losing against Tennessee with 55 seconds to go, but going into the season we knew we were going to have a hard journey. There were 11 new players and just a few seniors and you knew this is going to be a young team, and how are you going to chip away and get better?

All things considered, the team played really well, achieved a lot, won a lot of games, went far in the tournament and just came up a little short in that game. So you can feel good about that, but also know I’m not satisfied with that big-picture. We want to go further, we want to achieve more.

So knowing how well the team played and the fact you had 11 freshmen and only lose two starters, you have to feel good going into 2019, right?

Yeah, I mean, you want to be optimistic, right? But you also have in your head that the margin is so small. So we’re optimistic, but you also think if you have some injuries, if the team’s not playing well, if somebody is not in good form, if you don’t coach well, it feels like you got to get everything right as a program to win enough games to go far and get in the tournament and go beyond that. So, optimistic? Yes. Feeling good about it? Yes. But I know the margin is small and we have to continue to grow and get better. Having that optimism means nothing in the season if we don’t achieve and put the work in.

When does your team reconvene and start preparing for the spring season?

They come back January 9 for class. That week, I let them get their feet back underneath them. We’ll have a team meeting, just a ‘hey, here’s the plan’ and then we’ll start the next week with our eight-hour weeks. We do that for four weeks. We do eight-hour weeks where they start playing again but it’s small groups, individual group, kind of one-hour sessions and they’re with our strength coach three days a week. And then mid-February is when it’s back to normal.

(Note: Arizona plays ASU, GCU, BYU and two boys teams in the spring)

What is the toughest part about replacing a goalkeeper like Lainey (Burdett) who was a four-year starter and the all-time shutouts leader? Is it her ability to make the big save? Is it her communication? Is it her leadership?

Yes (laughs). All those things. You could probably find a parallel in other sports of like a pitcher in softball, a quarterback in football, a point guard in basketball. There’s not a ton of really good ones on the face of the Earth. So when you have one and you lose one, that’s always going to be a challenge. We always knew that Lainey was graduating this year and so we got ahead of it, and we feel like we have some people who can fill her shoes moving forward. So we feel comfortable that those players we just have to coach well, coach hard, they have to get better, and they have to get some experience because none of them have any game experience at this level.

What do you mean you got ahead of it?

In terms of recruiting, like bringing in players ... to eventually fill her shoes. We have Kendyll (Humphreys) and Makayla (Aman) who were here this year, and we have Hope (Hisey) coming in this next year, and we have some people coming in future years. You always are making sure that you have the next goalkeeper on your roster or a couple of them that you think will be good enough to pan out to be the next goalkeeper.

Is finding that next goalkeeper the No. 1 objective in the spring?

I think the No. 1 thing is to make sure everyone’s got to grow and get better. But the first four months of the fall with 11 freshmen, it looks different for all those 11 players year two, three and four. And so having them step up into bigger roles will be really important, and the goalkeeper position fits that tremendously.

Looking back, how do you think the freshmen performed? So many of them had big roles.

I think they did well. I think what can happen, which I’m noticing as I talk to all them to close out the season, is that they had good freshman years, but the expectation that they created individually and as a whole sets the bar very, very high, which is great. You want to have a high bar, high expectations. At the end of day they had never gone through a Pac-12 or a college season. This was their first time, so they did great. Emily (Knous) got recognized. Brooke (Wilson) was scoring goals before her injury, almost all of them played in some capacity. Obviously, Lainey froze out the two freshman goalkeepers, but everyone else pretty much played as freshmen.

And as a freshman, that’s a big deal. You played, you scored some goals, you contributed on a team that went to the second round of the tournament. So in that scope I would say every freshman did a good job, achieved great things and have set them up for success moving forward, knowing that the freshman year is a rocky road. They hadn’t gone through it before, they’re away from home, they get here in July, have to help us win games in August. I think some of them their scope was they were going to win the national championship as a freshman and be an All-American. Well, that takes some time and so I think they’ve set themselves up for a very great future as sophomores, juniors, and seniors as long as they keep their head on straight, chip away, continue to work, continue to grow. I’m excited about where they all can go moving forward.

I know there are currently no plans to upgrade Mulcahy Stadium, but if there is one thing you could enhance or change about it, what would it be?

I think the biggest thing is day-to-day you want to be able to provide an experience for the student-athletes that is comfortable and accomplishing what you want to accomplish on a day-to-day basis. So I would start with being able to expand the locker room space there and have a video room, where (the players) are in the locker room and we’re coaching them simultaneously so that we can be more efficient.

Right now we’re not able to be efficient because they’re in the locker room changing, we have to wait for all them to be done, and then film has to be done with everyone at once. And so it will be much better to be able to meet as a small group. Sometimes we go in that little referee room where we can fit maybe four or five people in there. It’s just not very efficient and in order to provide the experience you want, efficiency is very important because they’re crunched for time. I feel an obligation to not be over there at the facility hours on hours on hours, but we also need to accomplish things so that they can be successful on the field. And so that part is really tricky, and if we don’t accomplish it there, then they have to come here (to McKale Center). It’s multiple stops on the tour which just is not very efficient. So anything over there we could increase the efficiency of how their day goes would be my No. 1 thing. Anything on top of that would just be fanbase oriented.

Like adding shade?

Well, before we even get to that, I think bathroom space and parking should start before even getting to the shade bit.

Utah coach Rich Manning posted a thread on Twitter in which he suggested changes to the sport. One of them was lengthening the season (in terms of days, not games) or even going to a two-semester model. What is your take on that?

Lengthening the season is a no-brainer to me. ... The two-semester model is such a mountain to climb that it doesn’t feel like we would get any momentum with administrators across the country in the NCAA to make that happen. But our season needs to be extended. When you have a one-game week, it is so much better for the student-athlete, the staff, the recovery of that, the preparation of that. It’s just way different than the weeks we have games Thursday-Sunday or Friday-Sunday.

So I think it would be way more reasonable to extend the season, so that the wear and tear is more spread out and you have more time with your athletes. Like for a freshman to be successful, it is crazy. They graduate (high school), they get here in July, they then have to help the team win in August. It feels like they’re struggling with that. ... And then if you look at someone like Brooke, if you get injured, the season is so short that you are in a lot of trouble. Brooke broke a bone, but a badly sprained ankle and you miss two, maybe three weeks. That could be six games.