Bragging rights are always on the line when Arizona and ASU take the pitch, but this year’s rendition carries extra significance.
It’s as simple as this: if the Wildcats want any shot of hosting the first round of the NCAA Tournament, they must beat the last-place Sun Devils on Friday.
Conversely, if Arizona wants to avoid being on the bubble on Selection Monday, it cannot lose to ASU.
Arizona coach Tony Amato said he hasn’t tried to downplay the match’s significance for his players. He knows they are well aware of its implications.
“I’m thinking about it every single day because I don’t want this to be my last game,” said senior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra. “I think we just know we can’t lose to a non-ranked team. We have to set that aside and focus on the task at hand. We gotta focus on winning this game before we think about being in the tournament.”
No current UA player has ever lost to ASU. The Wildcats (10-6-1, 4-5-1) have won three straight against the Sun Devils (6-10-3, 0-8-2)—or five straight if you include a pair of spring games.
Cracking UA’s high press has been a challenge for ASU, which tends to be a possession-oriented team under third-year coach Graham Winkworth.
“We play a physical game and sometimes we get on the front foot with that and just keep going,” Cavarra said. “I think we catch teams in their back third.”
Arizona defeated ASU 1-0 in Tempe in last season, holding the Sun Devils without a single scoring chance. “U of A” chants echoed throughout Sun Devil Soccer Stadium as the final whistle sounded, something ASU players surely want to avenge in Tucson.
“It’s a pretty intense rivalry,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera. “No matter what our records are, it’s always a really good game and they always bring it to us.”
While Arizona has won three straight in this series, all three matches were decided by one goal.
“We always talk about this,” Cavarra said. “They bring their best during our game, no matter the type of season they’re having.”
It has been a bad one for the Sun Devils, who are the only Pac-12 team without a conference victory and have been outscored 20-7 since the start of league play.
But they feature two skilled forwards in Nicole Douglas and Marleen Schimmer, and will be lining up against an Arizona defense that just conceded nine goals against the Bay Area schools last weekend.
“We have to tighten up defensive and attacking set pieces against them,” Aguilera said.
With no shot at the postseason, Friday’s game will be the Sun Devils’ season finale, so they are expected to leave everything on the line.
The Wildcats know they need that same mentality. It could be their last game too.
“We have to come out hard,” said UA forward Brooke Wilson. “That’s something Tony is ingraining in our brain right now. So as long as we execute that, I think we should be good.”
“We know there’s a lot on the line regarding our NCAA Tournament berth,” Aguilera echoed, “but I think as long as we play our A-game, we’ll win.”
A closer look at Arizona’s NCAA Tournament résumé
Arizona entered the week ranked 40th in RPI. The top 32 teams host the first round, so the Wildcats are probably on the outside looking in in that regard.
But they do boast wins over two top-20 RPI teams—UCLA (8) and Washington State (20)—and that could give them an edge over some of the teams ranked similarly to them.
The problem with playing ASU, ranked 130th in RPI, is a win does not do much for Arizona’s RPI. In fact, it likely drops UA a few spots since the metric takes opponent winning percentage into account.
Meanwhile, a loss to ASU could drop the Wildcats a dozen spots, which is why they are not yet a lock to be included in the field of 64.
“I think it’s been up and down at times,” Amato described the 2019 season. “What I’m most proud of is we continue to learn and grow. If we were a bit down, we found a way to get out of it. If the energy went the wrong way, we addressed it and worked on it and kept using them as learning opportunities, which is what this is. Which is why I think we’re in a good spot now. We never got too high or too low. It was really trying to find some consistency throughout the season and now we’re in a place where we have a big game Friday and hopefully that sets us up for the NCAA Tournament and then it’s almost like a new season.”
Interviews from Thursday’s practice
Here’s Arizona coach Tony Amato on Friday’s match vs. ASU, which could determine if the Wildcats host the first round of the NCAA Tournament pic.twitter.com/mOfZdKS8mI— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 7, 2019