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Tony Amato one win from history as Arizona soccer hosts Houston Baptist

The UA head coach can make history Sunday

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

When Tony Amato took over the Arizona soccer program in 2013, a long rebuild figured to be ahead.

The UA was coming off a 6-11-3 season and had gone 12-40-7 under the previous head coach. It was a program that was consistently one of the worst in the Pac-12, logging just three winning seasons in its first 19 years of existence.

Then-Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne was well aware of that when he was looking for a new head coach, so initially he had modest expectations for Amato when he lured him away from Stephen F. Austin.

“I mean, the talk was not NCAA Tournaments,” Amato told me back in 2016, “it was how can we win some games and be relevant early on.”

Amato’s Wildcats have done that and so much more. Sunday, the sixth-year head coach can become the program’s all-time wins leader with a victory over Houston Baptist.

Amato has compiled a 55-35-13 record at Arizona, plus three NCAA Tournament appearances and the program’s second-ever Sweet 16 appearance. Arizona also hosted NCAA Tournament games (2015 and 2017) for the first time in school history.

Maybe even more impressive considering the program’s history is that Arizona has not had a losing season under Amato. And last season they set a record for conference wins (7).

So while Amato said becoming UA’s all-time wins leader wasn’t something he set out to achieve — “it wasn’t on my radar,” he said — he recognizes it represents how far the program has come in such a short period of time.

“I think if you just look at when we got here, we knew it was going to take some time to get the program where we want it. And it’s still not exactly where we want it, it takes time, but we have had success along the way and I think it’s important to recognize that,” he said. “I’m not a huge celebrate-every-moment person, but it does feel like you should recognize some key moments along the way and this feels like one of them.”

How has Amato been able to turn Arizona soccer around? He said it all stems from believing in the people involved the program — from players, to assistant coaches, to the training staff.

“We’ve really honed in on trying to put everyone in a position to be successful by highlighting what they’re good at and not asking them to focus on what their limitation is,” he said. “Obviously we want to develop those things and make them better, but our No. 1 thing has been that, and that’s equaled success early. I also think we’ve overcome some obstacles and not let some of those things get in our way.”

Arizona soccer does not have built-in advantages that other Pac-12 programs have. They don’t have a rich history (yet), their facilities are arguably the worst in the conference and they have to compete — and recruit — against women’s soccer powerhouses like Stanford, UCLA, USC and Cal year in and year out.

So it takes a high level of creativity to succeed at the UA, but Amato has proven he’s capable. The best part about playing for him, several players have said, is his ability to tailor his game-plans on an opponent-by-opponent basis.

As freshman Hallie Pearson put it, “he wants to make it so you don’t want to play against Arizona.”

“His ability to change formations and look at different personnel is a really strong aspect of his coaching,” added UA forward Jill Aguilera. “We always try to catch [teams] off guard, make sure that they don’t expect what we’re going to do. We’re always giving different looks.”

And more often than not, that strategy has resulted in wins. The record book bears that out.

“Some coaches hone in on ‘this is what we do, this is our system, we’re going to do that every time no matter what and hope that our players and our system overcomes anyone we face.’ ... We didn’t feel like we would be able to do that from the beginning,” Amato said.

“And I’ve always been someone that wants to scout the other team, find a way that the particular players you have on that day can get the result, and so we’ve been flexible, adaptive, fluid.

“I think you have to be when you’re not necessarily winning the national championship every year. We’ve been able to do that and that puts us in a place to make NCAA Tournaments and make runs when we get there.”

A familiar foe

Arizona has never faced Houston Baptist, but Amato is pretty familiar with them. He coached against HBU regularly when he was at Stephen F. Austin. Both teams are members of the Southland Conference.

Like Arizona, Houston Baptist is 1-1 this season. They’ve beaten Houston and lost to Grand Canyon. HBU played the Lopes in Phoenix on Friday.

“They were coming to play Grand Canyon and (head coach) Misty (Jones) reached out to see if we’d be interested in playing, and we have a relationship with them and we know them, so we felt like that would be a good game to play,” Amato said of scheduling HBU.

Some think the Huskies are a sleeper team. Women’s soccer analyst Chris Henderson picked them to win the Southland.

“At the very least, you would expect them to be a team that wins games and be competitive and help your RPI by the end of the season, so it made a lot of sense (to schedule them),” Amato said.

It’s a game Arizona cannot afford to lose. They already have one home loss to a mid-major team (Albany) and adding a second could be fatal to their NCAA Tournament hopes with Pac-12 play still looming. But they picked up a crucial win at UC Irvine on Thursday and are hoping to keep that momentum going into Sunday’s match.

“Everyday we’re getting a little bit better and I think this game is a really good opportunity for us to redeem ourselves at home, especially after the Albany game,” said Aguilera, who scored the game-winner in Irvine. “I think we’re all really excited.”

A return to normalcy

The Wildcats have another reason to be excited: they were able to train at Mulcahy Stadium on Saturday. Previously, their training sessions were being held at Kino Sports Complex, since the grass at Mulcahy was in rough condition.

In fact, the opener vs. Albany was the first time the Wildcats stepped on their home field this season. Saturday was the second time.

“The most important thing is it gets us back into a routine. That this our home, this is where our practice is going to be, everyone knowing that this is the plan,” Amato said.

“The second thing is that when we got here a little over five years ago, I felt like the team didn’t really take hold of the home field (advantage concept). Training was at all these different spots and it felt like it was important to just hone in on ‘this is where we play, this is our facility, let’s embrace this and do the best here.’

“And that was really important for the last five years and our freshmen haven’t experienced that. And so we gotta make sure they do that starting now, so I think that will be a big bonus for us.”

Tony Amato talks about the big win at UC Irvine, being one win away from becoming Arizona Soccer’s all-time winningest coach, Sunday’s home match vs. Houston Baptist and more

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Saturday, August 25, 2018