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Arizona soccer ready to kick off season vs. UTEP at Kino; Amanda Porter stepping into playmaking role

Sophomore forward Amanda Porter appears to be in line for a breakout season
Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

After a grueling week of two-a-days, the Arizona Wildcats will get their first taste of game action Saturday when they host an exhibition match against the UTEP Miners.

UA head coach Tony Amato says it’s a prime opportunity to improve and get a closer look at his team before the regular-season opener on Aug. 17.

“We’ve been working on things against each other for a little over a week and it’s going to be really important that we do that against someone else, get different looks, and see people in live action,” he said.

“There are so many things to work on when we get the team together. Everything from when to step, when to drop, to little angles, to the big picture of what you want the final product to look like. It just feels like there’s so many things in such a short time that we gotta keep tweaking, but we’ll get there.”

The preseason is extremely short, but Amato has been encouraged by the way his team has jelled since its first practice on Aug. 1.

“You go into every season and it feels like you hit the reset button and start over but we had some days where it was going to have to take a big effort and a good mentality to grind through and (the players) responded to all of that,” he said.

“It hasn’t always been perfect in terms of what we want it to look like, but the effort and the commitment and the mentality has been really good and I think that will take us a long way.”

UTEP went 8-11 last season, finishing 12th in Conference USA. Arizona went 11-5-4, winning a program-record seven conference games, good enough for a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12.

The Wildcats return six starters, so Amato has a good idea of what the starting 11 will look like Saturday. And with such a young roster — Arizona has 11 freshmen but only two seniors — they will have to lean on their most experienced players early in the season.

Those include senior goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, senior midfielder Kennedy Kieneker, junior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra, sophomore defender Sabrina Enciso, and junior defenders Samantha Falasco and Morgan McGarry.

“That group we feel pretty good about ... because they’re dependable and reliable and have been in the past,” said Amato, whose team has been picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12. “And then you sprinkle in some of the newbies, and that will make up what it looks like for the first few games I would think.”

Saturday’s match is technically a home game for the Wildcats, but it won’t feel like one. They are opening their season at Kino Sports Complex North Stadium since their home field at Mulcahy Stadium was recently resodded and isn’t playable yet.

It might not be ready for the regular-season opener, either.

“It’s definitely going to be different not being able to play at our own stadium,” acknowledged sophomore forward Amanda Porter, “but we’re able to adapt to any challenge.”

Located four miles south of Mulcahy, Kino Sports Complex North Stadium is home to FC Tucson and seats 2,900 fans. It even serves beer and has an overhang that provides shade for spectators.

It’s a nice venue but it can’t replicate the home-field advantage Mulcahy offers.

“I think it’s tricky to play at our place,” Amato said. “There’s little things with the facility that make it hard.”

Like not having a place to escape the heat at halftime. Or having to dress at McKale Center and bus over to Mulcahy before kickoff.

“It’s not a comfortable place for opponents to play,” Amato said with a smile. “Let’s just say that.”

The numbers bear that out. The Wildcats were 7-2-2 at Mulcahy last season and are 20-10-3 at home since 2015.

“We’ve been comfortable there the last few years,” Amato said. “When we got here, we felt it was really important to establish that as our home. Our identity is there, it’s really hard to play there, there are some little nuances there that make it tough to play and we’ve embraced that.

“Now we’re not there, but you can look around and (Kino) is a great venue. The Tucson community knows that when you watch some soccer games in town, this is a great place to do it. So we’re happy that they’re able to host us and we’ll make it our home for the beginning of the season.”

Porter stepping into playmaking role

Arizona graduated its entire starting frontline, including 36 percent of its goals and 48 percent of its assists from a season ago.

The Wildcats will need multiple players to elevate to replace that production, and Amanda Porter “has blossomed” and is “stepping into that role,” Amato said.

“With Porter, the biggest thing is you go from your freshman year to your sophomore year,” he explained. “So the experience and the mentality, you’ll always see a change. But she’s fitter than ever. That makes a big difference. She was one of our top fitness test scorers and she’s always been able to play soccer. But you get a year older, fitter, a little more comfortable.”

Amato praised Porter’s ability to make sound decisions with the ball.

“She’s someone in the attack that you get the ball to and you don’t always have to tell ‘hey, play the ball here. Play the ball there’,” he said.

“That’s always a really good thing to have in terms of your attack. You don’t always want to micromanage that and she’s someone who knows where the ball should go, knows the right pass, knows the right cross, knows when to shoot, she’s left-footed, skillful. There’s a lot there that we can build off of moving forward.”

Porter missed some time with a leg injury last season but still managed to start in 11 games and score three goals, tied for second-most on the team.

Perhaps that was just a preview of what’s to come in 2018.

“I don’t think I’ve done much differently, it’s just having that year of experience under my belt,” Porter said. “Now I’m able to be more confident and step up and help the team.”