Life has been easy for the Arizona Wildcats lately — maybe too easy.
They have won four straight, dominating their opponents to the tune of a 14-0 goal differential.
Yes, scoring goals and winning games is fun, but if you’re an all-conference defender like Morgan McGarry, those lopsided matches leave something to be desired.
“Being able to have somebody come at you and being able to fight and grind and win the ball back, it’s definitely more fun,” she said.
McGarry and the rest of Arizona’s backline should finally get that opportunity when they host two formidable teams in Boise State (4-1) and Baylor (4-2) on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
Boise State has scored nine goals in five games. Baylor, who made the Elite Eight last season, has scored 18 goals in six games.
“I think it will definitely be a test for us,” McGarry said. “(UC) Irvine was a great challenge for us and we played great soccer and this will be another battle for the full 90 minutes if it doesn’t go [into extra time], too.”
McGarry said the Wildcats (4-1) spent the last couple weeks honing their goal-scoring skills — and it has showed — but this week they are shifting their attention to the defensive side of the ball.
“We always focus on back-pressing, where if the ball breaks your line, turn around and win the ball back,” she said.
Head coach Tony Amato said Arizona needs to be better in that area, but overall there hasn’t been much to complain about. The Wildcats have allowed one goal all season and zero in their last four games.
“Obviously we have a really good goalkeeper and four good backs, and then people that come into the game and help us,” he said. “We attack and defend with all 11 that are on the field at a given time, and that’s helped lead to some good defensive performances and we’ve kept the ball out of the net.”
Arizona has been equally impressive offensively, placing in the top three in the Pac-12 in shots, goals and corner kicks.
The UA has had high-powered offenses before, but this one is different. Nearly all their goals have been scored in the run of play instead of via set-pieces.
“You have to evolve every year, you have to tweak it based on the personnel you have,” Amato explained.
Several players have noted that Arizona is connecting more passes in the final third than ever.
“It has a purpose,” Amato said of Arizona’s passing. “We’ve really worked more on the runs when you’re off the ball that will help us connect passes when you have it. It’s been a bit more purposeful and meaningful with that all over the field where maybe two years ago it was higher up the field where those combinations were happening.”
It’s a balanced attack, too. Nine players have scored this season and only Jada Talley (4) has scored more than twice.
“We don’t want to pass the ball from one side of the field to the other. It’s ‘get the ball, play fast, but play to feet, and combine to get in the box and score,’” McGarry said. “... It saves our forwards from running 50-yard sprints the entire game and it also helps us as defenders to keep possession of the ball. ... We have so many players that are able to come in, play the ball with their feet and come up top. It really adds a dimension to our team.”
It has been effective, to be sure. But it also helps that Arizona has had a soft schedule. Their last three wins have come against Houston Baptist, Southeast Missouri State and New Hampshire. UA outscored them 13-0, facing little resistance on the ball.
Boise State and Baylor are much better teams, and even though UA midfielder Kennedy Kieneker believes Arizona has been adequately tested so far, it never hurts to face stiffer competition before Pac-12 play begins.
“The more we get tested,” Kieneker said, “the better.”
After Boise State and Baylor, Arizona hosts Cal State Fullerton, who made the NCAA Tournament last year. Then they begin conference play on the road against No. 1 Stanford.
Knowing what lies ahead, Amato has warned his team not to get complacent amid its recent success.
“He keeps saying that we need to keep elevating,” Kieneker said.
Boise State enters Friday’s match on a three-game winning streak, posting three straight shutouts. Offensively, the Broncos lean on two players — midfielder McKenna Kynett and forward Raimee Sherle — who have scored eight of their nine goals.
It’s been awhile since Arizona’s backline has been put under duress, but that duo could cause some havoc.
McGarry is ready for the challenge. She has been waiting for one.
“I’m excited,” she said. “When you go in for a strong tackle and you’re able to win the ball, it fires you up a little more than when you’re just standing back there and seeing the forwards attack.”