The Arizona Wildcats took some heat on Twitter this week from women’s soccer guru Chris Henderson, who gave them a “dishonorable mention” for their non-conference strength of schedule landing outside the Top 100.
The Pac-12 is arguably the top conference in college soccer, so it’s important Arizona is tested before league play begins, but head coach Tony Amato brushed off Henderson’s evaluation.
“I mean, all of that is based on previous seasons, and the schedule was made so that we would play teams that are picked to win their conference or at least have a winning record and I think some of the ones that maybe aren’t the most well-known names have been picked to win their conference by the same person who tweeted that out,” Amato said.
“So I think it’s just a number and we think some of those games are going to show us some things. And then some of the other ones we know (Cal State) Fullerton, Baylor, UC Irvine, those are all going to look like Pac-12 games, and so we’ll know where we stand and what we have to work on and be better at by the time Stanford rolls around in late September.”
Arizona’s top non-conference opponents are UC Irvine, Houston Baptist, Cal State Fullerton, New Hampshire, Boise State and Baylor, which reached the Elite Eight last year. Fullerton was also a tournament team.
UC Irvine, Boise State, and New Hampshire did not reach the postseason, but they all won 10 or more games. Meanwhile, Henderson has picked Houston Baptist to win the Southland Conference this year.
Arizona’s regular-season opener (Friday, 7 p.m. PT) is against Albany, who went 6-11-1 last season.
“We don’t really know what to expect because we’ve never played them before and haven’t seen anything on them, but there’s no one you’re going to play that’s bad,” UA goalkeeper Lainey Burdett said before practice Tuesday.
“Everyone is good so we’re going to have to do what we did last week, which is come out and have good movement going forward, quick pace, and I think we should be good.”
The Wildcats beat UTEP 5-0 in an exhibition Saturday, one of the most dominant performances in recent memory. (Our coverage from that match can be found here.)
Senior midfielder Kennedy Kieneker and sophomores Amanda Porter, Hannah Clifford, and Jada Talley led UA’s revamped — and perhaps improved — attack.
“I thought coming into the season we might be capable of doing more and after a week of training I was convinced that we’re capable of doing more with the ball and I think you saw a snapshot of that on Saturday,” Amato said. “And we’re going to keep tweaking that so that we’re firing on all cylinders as the season progresses.”
He added: “We prioritized some attacking things on Saturday and we saw some things in video that we need to clean up defensively, so we’re going to hone in on that, make sure we have a good game plan and make sure mentally the team’s in a good place to get out and battle and fight for each other on Friday.”
Returning to Mulcahy*
The Wildcats hosted UTEP at Kino Sports Complex since the grass at Mulcahy Stadium was not ready for action. As of Wednesday night, it was not clear where Friday’s game would be played, but it was announced Thursday morning that it will be hosted at Mulcahy.
Last week it seemed certain Arizona would host Albany at Kino, but momentum had been building for a return to Mulcahy.
“We just need to walk the field with some administrators and have the final decision made,” Amato said Tuesday morning at Kino Sports Complex. “We saw it back in June. We thought there were some major issues and they just weren’t rectified in time for us to get out there.
“We could play on it, but it would then mean for the rest of the year it might be in bad shape. So we’re trying to save it as much as possible and give it as much time before we get back out there.”
Arizona was 7-2-2 at Mulcahy last season and is 20-10-3 at home since 2015. The venue offers some built-in advantages for the Wildcats such as the opposing team not having a locker room to flee to at halftime.
“It’s not a comfortable place for opponents to play,” Amato said, with a smile. “Let’s just say that.”
*this portion of the story has been updated
Wildcats in the rankings
Arizona is unranked in the Coaches Poll, but does find itself ranked 21st in TopDrawerSoccer’s Top 25.
TopDrawerSoccer also placed UA defender Morgan McGarry at No. 78 in its Top 100 Players to Watch in 2018. Unsurprisingly, several other Pac-12 players were listed, including Stanford’s Tierna Davidson and Catarina Macario and UCLA’s Jessie Fleming, who make up the top three.
McGarry, a redshirt junior, made the All-Pac-12 second team in 2017.
Two wins away
Entering his sixth season, Amato is just two wins away from becoming Arizona’s all-time winningest coach, so here are some things a few players had to say about him this week.
“He’s great. He understands what he’s doing and he always figures out a way to get a win. We don’t always play the same way. We all have grit and everything, but he knows how to adapt to other teams to get a win.” — senior goalkeeper Lainey Burdett
“I love playing for him. I think he knows what he’s really talking about. He’s really stern, but I think he has a really good vision for what he sees with the team and each individual player.” — junior defender Samantha Falasco
“One of the coolest parts to me is that he makes it hard for other teams to go against us and most coaches focus on what everyone’s good at and all that stuff and he does, but he wants to make it so you don’t want to play against Arizona.” — freshman defender Hallie Pearson
- Former UA forward Charlotte Brascia scored her first career goal as a pro. She plays for Skövde KIK in Sweden. She started in all 20 games last season and is one of the first Wildcats to play professionally.
- Check out our feature on highly-touted freshman Hallie Pearson, who is on track to bolster UA’s backline in 2018 and beyond.
- In case you missed it, Arizona has been picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 this year by the conference’s coaches. They finished fourth last year, despite being picked to finish ninth.
- Henderson believes Arizona will be an eighth-place team: “I think they’re solid. Have a chance to be pretty good on defense, but (Gabi) Stoian’s a big player to replace in the attack,” he told me. “Should be another winning season, and they’ll be in contention for another NCAA Tournament berth.”