Arizona soccer’s season is set up to be a grueling three-month grind.
The program released its 2018 schedule on Wednesday, and eight of its 20 opponents were NCAA Tournament participants last season.
Arizona’s marquee non-conference opponents include UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton, New Hampshire, Boise State and Baylor, which reached the Elite Eight last year.
UC Irvine, Boise State, and New Hampshire were not tournament teams in 2017, but they all won at least 10 games.
Then there’s Arizona’s Pac-12 slate, which pits them against the nation’s top teams on a weekly basis. Stanford and UCLA battled in the national title game last year, and Washington State made a surprise run to the Sweet 16. USC and Cal are perennial top-15 teams.
In all, the Wildcats have 11 home games, seven road games, and two neutral-site games in Tempe. Eight matches will be aired on the Pac-12 Network. (The full schedule and a more comprehensive breakdown can be found below.)
Arizona went 11-5-4 last year, including a 7-2-2 record in the Pac-12. It was the first time in school history they won more than six conference games.
UA then beat TCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Florida State in the second round.
The Wildcats lost 40 percent of their goal-scoring to transfer and graduation, but return six starters, including defender Morgan McGarry and goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, who were all-conference players last season.
They begin training on July 31 and officially open the season at home against Albany on Aug. 17. In between, they have a scrimmage against UTEP on Aug. 11.
A closer look...
Most of Arizona’s non-conference schedule is pieced together about 18 to 24 months in advance. The rest, usually a match or two, is filled in about six to eight months out.
Head coach Tony Amato tries to schedule opponents that will boost Arizona’s NCAA Tournament résumé and prepare them for the Pac-12, which is the toughest conference in the sport.
Finding a balance between the two can be tricky because it means Arizona has to schedule formidable, but beatable, foes.
If the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule is too light, their RPI will suffer and they will be ill-prepared for Pac-12 play.
If their non-conference schedule is too difficult, they run the risk of finishing below .500 and missing the tournament.
“The biggest part of the RPI is your opponents’ winning percentage. We have non-conference opponents on [our schedule] that have won a lot of games. They’re not all big name Power-Five schools, but when you look at most of them, they win 10 games or more typically,” Amato said.
“Then there’s a few that will be really tough challenges that will tell me a lot about the team. Baylor was in the Elite Eight last year. If we do well in that game, that’ll help us prepare for the Pac-12.
“Even if we don’t do well,” Amato added, “it’ll tell us a lot about the team that we have to grow a lot before Pac-12 starts. And then when you look at the Pac-12 schedule, that gives us an opportunity to win top-50 RPI games, which are a major part of making the tournament. So I think [our schedule] accomplishes a lot of things for us.”
There aren’t any easy games in the Pac-12 since all 12 teams are solid at worst and several are elite, but Amato likes how UA’s conference schedule shakes out this year.
Arizona plays three of the four dangerous California schools — USC, UCLA, and Stanford — on the road.
Yes, that diminishes Arizona’s already-slim chances of winning or drawing even further, but it also means all their conference home games are winnable.
So if Arizona takes care of business in Tucson, any points they pick up against USC, UCLA, or Stanford are gravy.
“I’m up for playing them anywhere, but I think when you play them on the road, like you’re saying, the expectation from those on the outside is that a road game is going to be even more difficult,” Amato said.
“From my standpoint, it means you have the other ones at home. The year you have all four California schools at home, that means you’re on the road against all the non-California schools, which could be an even more challenging season.”
Arizona’s performance against the Pac-12 last year was as good as it’s ever been. They went 1-2-1 against the California schools — they upset Cal in Berkeley and tied UCLA for the first time ever — and 6-0-1 against the rest of the conference. Arizona was the top non-California school in the league, and even finished ahead of Cal in the standings by four points.
Now the Wildcats are out to prove that wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
“We’re always trying to prove that we’re good,” Amato said. “Every competitor’s trying to do that and (prove) that you’re getting better every year. The challenge is doing it year in and year out on a consistent basis.”
Amato points to Arizona softball as the standard for consistency. Mike Candrea’s program has made the NCAA Tournament 32 years in a row, and is never in jeopardy of missing the postseason.
Arizona soccer has a long way to go before it’s on that level, but it’s on the right track, with three postseason appearances in the last four years.
“In the beginning, going to the tournament was unbelievable and a massive step,” said Amato, who’s entering his sixth season in Tucson. “To then duplicate it in 2015 was great, but we missed [the tournament] in 2016, then we were back in 2017.
“So can we build this to where every year it’s like, ‘yeah, we’re going to the tournament’ and the only question is whether we host or not?
“Right now, a down year is not making the tournament. It would be great to keep proving that no matter what we have in our arsenal, we’re going to the tournament and we’re making a run. That’s what we’re trying to prove.”
- vs. UTEP (Aug. 11, scrimmage)
- vs. Albany (Aug. 17)
- at UC Irvine (Aug. 23)
- vs. Houston Baptist (Aug. 26)
- vs. Southeast Missouri (Aug. 31 in Tempe)
- vs. New Hampshire (Sept. 2 in Tempe)
- vs. Boise State (Sept. 7)
- vs. Baylor (Sept. 9)
- vs. Cal State Fullerton (Sept. 14)
- at Stanford (Sept. 21)
- vs. Utah (Sept. 27)
- vs. Colorado (Sept. 30)
- at USC (Oct. 4)
- at UCLA (Oct. 7)
- vs. Cal (Oct. 13)
- vs. Washington (Oct. 18)
- vs. Washington State (Oct. 21)
- at Oregon State (Oct. 25)
- at Oregon (Oct. 28)
- at Arizona State (Nov. 2)