The preseason is a whirlwind for Arizona soccer.
Its first practice is July 31. Its first match is August 17. That means head coach Tony Amato has less than three weeks to get his players into game shape.
There’s no time to waste.
“It’s a little insane,” he said.
Luckily, the UA has FC Tucson to ease the process.
Every summer, a handful of Wildcats suit up for the local soccer club, which is a member of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, an affiliate of the United States Soccer Federation.
This year, six Wildcats are playing for FC Tucson.
Four of them — Kennedy Kieneker, Lainey Burdett, Samantha Falasco and Kelcey Cavarra — started for Arizona in 2017. The other two, Jill Aguilera and Hailey Mazzola, were key reserves that could break into the starting 11 in 2018.
FC Tucson’s eight-game schedule, which runs from late-May to late-June, gives them a chance to knock off some rust before the college season rolls around.
And there’s a lot to shed. Arizona’s last official game was in mid-November.
“It’s almost like I’m getting comfortable again with being out on the field and seeing what that’s like,” said Burdett, an all-Pac-12 goalkeeper. “I’m just working on things that you normally would during practice, but in a game situation. It’s working on touches and communication and movement off the ball.”
As any athlete or coach will tell you, there’s a difference between “in shape” and “game shape.”
Every player is fit when Arizona begins training in late July — they all follow a tailored workout plan over the summer — but the ones who play in the WPSL are noticeably sharper than the ones who don’t.
“You can tell the ones who touched a ball and those who didn’t,” Amato said.
“The ones who just had a one-on-one with a trainer ... you can definitely tell the rustiness of their touch or passing or decision-making when they took off all [summer] to actually not get reps in that.”
Kieneker, a midfielder, has been playing outside back for FC Tucson. That’s a position she likely won’t ever play at Arizona, but she knows being in a game environment is valuable, nonetheless.
“I think as long as we’re getting touches on the ball,” she said, “that’s all that really matters.”
While playing in the WPSL does heighten the risk of an offseason injury, Amato said it actually helps players avoid ailments once the college season begins.
“If somebody took May, June and a chunk of July off, and didn’t strike the ball very often and then we start preseason camp and train twice a day where they’re hitting balls, then you see hip flexors, quads, groins get tweaked because the reps of hitting a ball aren’t there,” he explained.
“And this helps prevent that, which is super important because you have to be healthy to help the team in those first two weeks. So that’s probably where you see the greatest benefit.”
WPSL rosters consist of current college players, former college players, international players, and prep standouts, so the level of competition is somewhat comparable to Division 1.
Burdett described it as “different” but “still very competitive.”
“There are some teams in [FC Tucson’s] league that it’s all older players or all college players, so it’s really kind of hit or miss or up and down, and you can’t really tell,” Amato said. “I mean, I think overall it’s a good level.”
Burdett and Kieneker, UA’s lone seniors, also see playing for FC Tucson as a way to help them ensure they are at their best for their last college seasons.
They are still bitter about the way the 2017 campaign ended — a 2-0 loss to Florida State in the Round of 32.
“Yeah, we made it to the second round of the tournament, but we felt that with how we were playing, we could have made it farther,” Burdett said. “Florida State was a good team, so losing to them was kind of sucky, but now we’re just that much more motivated to come back and work harder because it is our senior year, and you want to get as far as you can.”
“I feel the exact same way,” Kieneker added.
That desire to improve over the summer is widespread throughout Arizona’s roster. There are Wildcats scattered all across the WPSL, not just FC Tucson.
This Friday, for instance, FC Tucson hosts Phoenix del Sol, which boasts two Wildcats of its own in defender Leah Carillo and forward Brynn Moga.
Hailey and Hannah Clifford play for the THUSC Diamonds, a Beaverton, Oregon-based club.
Forward Dana Dalton is a member of San Diego Parciero.
It wasn’t always this way.
“In the beginning it felt like no one was playing over the summer,” said Amato, who’s entering his sixth year at Arizona. “It was just like, ‘oh I need a break.’ It’s a mentality thing, right? It’s feeling like you need a break versus feeling like the mentality of the team now, which is ‘I want to grow, develop, improve, get better.’”
Not coincidentally, Arizona is currently enjoying its best stretch in school history. Last season, the Wildcats won seven conference games for the first time ever, and they have reached the NCAA Tournament three times in the last four years — also a first.
So the program is on the rise, and at least some of its recent success can be attributed to FC Tucson and the WPSL.
“The program just feels like it’s growing and becoming more mature every year,” Amato said.
“As you go from year to year where players keep getting better and better and train a little harder and harder and play more and more over the summer, all those things are adding up.”