When Arizona soccer hosts No. 10 UCLA on Thursday, it will be a game of contrasting styles.
“I feel like they have more players that are technical, and I feel like we’re more of like an athletic, fast, work-hard, physical team,” said Arizona forward Jada Talley. “Sometimes when you put those matchups together, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
But most of the time you do.
Since Arizona soccer’s inception in 1994, the Wildcats have played UCLA 25 times. They have lost 23 times. The only exceptions were a 1-0 win in 2004 and a 2-2 tie in 2017.
It is one of the most lopsided rivalries—if you can call it that—in the Pac-12 across all sports, but Arizona (6-2, 0-1) is hoping to buck the trend this weekend.
It helps that the Bruins (6-2-1, 0-1) have looked unusually vulnerable the last few weeks. They have fallen to Santa Clara, tied Pepperdine and, most recently, lost to Cal in their Pac-12 opener. One more slip-up and they will have already matched last season’s loss total.
“UCLA has losses already to teams that you wouldn’t think they would lose to, so I’m optimistic going into it,” Talley said.
Sophomore midfielder Emily Knous said Arizona will need to do the “tough stuff” in order to upset UCLA, whose roster is littered with national team players like goalkeeper Teagan Micah (Australia), midfielder Jessie Fleming (Canada), and forward Ashley Sanchez (USA).
“You have to do the tough stuff every game. It’s not just this game, but there are some things that you gotta make sure (you’re doing),” said Arizona coach Tony Amato. “That you’re out-sprinting the other team. You gotta make sure you’re blocking shots. You gotta make sure you’re winning headers. You gotta make sure you’re picking up second balls. And then there are things higher up the field that you gotta even make sure you’re denying the forward pass and sliding to keep balls in. All that stuff is important in every game, and if you don’t do that in a game against UCLA you have no chance.”
UCLA has allowed seven goals in nine games, so scoring opportunities will likely be scant for the Wildcats, who will need to be clinical with their finishing.
“Tony put it in our ear that they are going to have the ball more than us, so (we need to) not to get super down on ourselves or feeling like we’re running in circles,” Talley said. “That’s something we need to accept. When we do get the ball, we need to work on what Arizona does best. In my opinion, that’s fast attacks. So if you do win the ball in the counterattack, go to goal. You can’t sit down, wait for everyone to get back.”
Arizona players also cannot be afraid to let it rip when they have space. That was an issue Friday in the loss to Colorado. The Buffaloes blocked some shots early, causing the Wildcats to be “gun shy” the rest of the match, Amato said.
“We gotta have the mentality of the 3-point shooter who misses, misses, misses but keeps throwing them up there,” he said.
Eight current UA players appeared in the 2017 matchup against UCLA when the Wildcats tied the Bruins for the first time ever. Arizona fell behind by two goals that day, but kept fighting and answered with two second-half goals to earn one of the best results in program history.
Talley, who assisted on the equalizer, doesn’t see it as a fluke, even if the record books say otherwise.
“It was so, so hot...and I just remember them not wanting to play because it was so hot, and I feel like that’s where we had them a little bit,” she said. “The two goals came from freshmen at the time, so I’m really optimistic. It’s not like we can’t beat them. If everyone works hard, I think we can give them a run for their money.”
These games are a little more personal
Like UCLA and USC, the Wildcats are loaded with players from Southern California. It makes their matchups against the L.A. schools that much more competitive.
Heck, one of USC’s star players is Penelope Hocking, the twin sister of Arizona midfielder Iliana Hocking.
“If I get any two games in the Pac that I want wins out of, it’s these two,” said Talley, a Corona, California native. “I have a lot of friends on both too, UCLA more. I have two (former club) teammates (Sanchez and Karina Rodriguez) and one of my really good friends on that team. So it’s kinda like you’re playing your old friends from when you’re 15 or 16. It just feels like Cali is coming to you, so you just want to give it to them.“
UCLA and USC are such prestigious programs that they can afford to be extremely selective about who they recruit. They usually pluck the best prospects from the U.S. youth national teams.
UCLA didn’t even bother recruiting Talley, who is Arizona’s leading assister and led the Wildcats in scoring last season. USC showed interest, but was unwilling to offer a full scholarship.
Does Talley have some hard feelings about that? You could say that.
“UCLA is more of me playing against my players. USC, when we play them, it’s more like me against the coach,” she laughed.
For other players, like Knous, sharing the field with USC and UCLA is a testament to how much they have progressed in their soccer careers.
“They’re hometown teams, I grew up going to the games since I was little,” said the Long Beach native. “It makes it more surreal. I’ve dreamed of playing these teams my whole life, so getting to be on the field with them is pretty special.”
Knous adapting to lesser role
Knous was one of Arizona’s top players last season, recording four goals and three assists on her way to a spot on the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team as a playmaking midfielder.
This season, she is experiencing something of a sophomore slump. Statistically, at least. Knous has one assist and is still searching for her first goal.
Meanwhile, her shot total is down (from 25 to 3) and so are her minutes. Knous started in 16 games last season, averaging 54 minutes per game. This year, she has only started in one game, averaging 35 minutes per appearance.
“My role has slightly changed,” Knous said. “I haven’t been on the scoreboard as much, but I’ve still been having a role on the team and doing some stuff that have led to goals eventually.”
Knous’ assist came against Tennessee Tech in September when she fired a powerful shot on frame that was saved by the keeper before bouncing to Hocking, who slotted it for the game-winner.
“I think she’s been good overall,” Amato said of Knous. “She’s been learning, growing, getting better. I think she wants her role to be a little more playing time, but I think in general she’s done a good job accepting her role so far, and she’s had some times where she’s done really well and sometimes that we’re working on getting better. And I think that’s for every player.”
When asked if it is hard to go from being a starter as a freshman to a reserve as a sophomore, Knous said: “Yeah, it definitely is a change of scenery, but I think it’s also important for me to adapt to that and not get down on myself with those things.”
When asked what Knous has to do to earn more playing time, Amato said: “I think it’s overall everybody just continuing to grow and get better.”
He added: “Every year the role can change a little bit and that’s the only place that she’s in.”
0-4 start is a scary possibility
By losing to Colorado, Arizona has put itself in serious jeopardy of digging itself into an 0-4 hole to begin Pac-12 play.
That’s because after facing UCLA on Thursday, the Wildcats host No. 6 USC on Sunday before hitting the road to face No. 7 Washington State next Thursday.
While that does mean the second half of Arizona’s conference schedule is lighter, that is a relative term. Every team in the Pac-12 has a winning record this season. Even Oregon State, which won two games all of last season, is 8-1.
So even a draw or two against the L.A. schools could go a long way for Arizona come Selection Monday.
“I remember in 2013 when I first came into the league, I thought that it was a big challenge and a lot of good teams,” Amato said. “It still feels that way now. There’s a lot of good teams every year. Every game is a battle, every game is tough, there’s no easy ones, and this year is no exception to that. So hopefully everybody gets enough wins and there’s a lot of teams that end up in the (NCAA) tournament.”
Interviews from Wednesday’s practice
Tony Amato previews Arizona Soccer’s matches against UCLA and USC, two of the elite programs in the countryPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Here’s more from Talley on UCLA’s Ashley Sanchez, that time Arizona tied the Bruins for the first time ever, and keeping up with the Pac-12 as a whole.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) October 3, 2019
(Apparently I am one of the top sources of Pac-12 soccer) pic.twitter.com/JobJ7aKFhq