Recruiting at a higher level than ever, the Arizona Wildcats believe their depth is one of their greatest strengths this season.
They will need it this weekend.
Arizona is set to partake in the annual Sun Devil Desert Classic where they will face Southeast Missouri State on Friday at 4:30 p.m. MST and New Hampshire on Sunday at 11 a.m. MST.
Temperatures in Tempe are expected to reach triple digits for both matches, meaning substitutions will be made early and often.
“It’s going to be hot and we’re not going to kid the players but we train in it and we know the main thing is how to prepare for it,” Arizona head coach Tony Amato said. “We do a lot of things to make sure we’re eating right, hydrated, staying as cool as possible, doing some little details that will help the players, but at the end of the day the players have to go out and play and I think we’ll have a deep squad that can go out there and perform when called upon.”
If Sunday was any indication, Arizona (2-1) has enough firepower to weather the elements. Five different Wildcats scored in a 6-0 win over Houston Baptist, and four of the goal-scorers came off the bench.
“We have that depth where if someone does get tired because of the heat and playing hard and pressing and trying to win the ball, you have someone that can step in and fill that role,” said UA defender Morgan McGarry. “And it feels like there’s no difference whether it’s our starting team out there or we bring in subs, we’re always going to hit the ground running and have no gaps between those.”
The win over HBU capped off a superb week for the Wildcats, who also beat UC Irvine in a physical road game. A pair of victories were exactly what Arizona needed after opening their season with a disappointing loss to Albany.
“I think that got our confidence back,” Amato said.
It helped that Arizona finally had some shots find the back of the net. The Wildcats scored just one goal in their first two games before unloading for six against Houston Baptist.
“Sometimes goals come in bunches,” Amato said. “Against Albany we weren’t able to put the ball in the back of the net. If you push forward to Irvine, that’s just a hard-fought game. There aren’t going to be a lot of goals in that game. ... Against HBU, if you look at some of the goals, (there were) volleys out of the air, half-volleys on the run, pretty unbelievable finishes. Is that going to happen all the time? You hope so, but you’re going to have to score some scrappy goals as well and sometimes win 1-0 and we’re prepared to do that and happy to do that.”
While scoring has been a challenge at times, Arizona’s offense hasn’t exactly been struggling. They are averaging 20.3 shots per game, with nearly half of them being on frame. Arizona took 17 and 14 shots against Albany and UC Irvine, respectively, before peppering 30 against Houston Baptist.
“We’ve had a lot of chances where the goalkeeper will make a save and it’s us being able to place it or figure out when it’s the right time to hit it instead of place it,” said UA forward Brooke Wilson, who scored her first career goal Sunday. “Just that final shot or execution pass, we have to get those down.”
Neither Southeast Missouri State (1-2) nor New Hampshire (2-2) are particularly good, but a lot is at stake in Tempe. Arizona cannot afford another loss to a mid-major, though you can bet their opponents are eager to hand them one.
“You always come in with a target on your back in those games,” McGarry said. “They want to prove themselves. They want to show that they are a top team and can compete against the highest level, and I take that as a challenge. I always go out like ‘no, we are a Pac-12 team. We’re Arizona soccer for a reason.’”
Moreover, coming away with two victories is crucial because Arizona has two challenging matches against Boise State and Baylor — who made the Elite Eight last year — looming next weekend.
Drop a game or two in Tempe and those become must-win games.
“I think it’s always important that you win the game in front of you, but if we can win the weekend and get both victories then that sets you up for a good weekend and some momentum and confidence next week,” Amato said. “That doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to play well next week, but winning definitely solves a lot of problems so we’re looking to do that this weekend and that will push us to the Boise State game.”
The Wildcats had a dispiriting performance in last year’s Sun Devil Desert Classic, falling 2-1 to UCF before a 1-1 draw against Boston University.
The loss to UCF, ranked No. 24 at the time, was especially demoralizing. Arizona trotted out 21 different players to try to stay fresh in the unrelenting heat, but collapsed late by surrendering two goals in the final 13 minutes of regulation.
Don’t expect them to wear down this time.
“I think we’re going to have a lot more substitutions because it will be so hot, but we have such a deep team that it won’t really matter,” Wilson said. “We have three sets of forwards, three sets of midfielders. … I think we’ll be fine.”