Arizona soccer coach Tony Amato inked an extension with the school Tuesday that will keep him in Tucson through the 2021 season.
It is a reward for transforming a once-third-rate program into one of the best in the West, though he isn’t comfortable framing it that way.
“It gets put out there as, oh Tony built the program. Tony gets a new contract. But there’s so much more to it,” he said.
In six seasons under Amato, the Wildcats have compiled a 67-40-15 record, made four NCAA Tournament appearances and recorded four seasons with 10 or more wins.
The UA soccer program doesn’t have a storied history or the sparkling facilities to woo recruits — it has the furthest thing from it — so Amato used two words to explain the program’s ascension.
“Any place has pluses and minuses, right?” he said. “And we have some minuses that we’re trying to improve and get better, but our plus is definitely that we’ve had great assistant coaches. Paul (Nagy)’s been here the whole time. That’s very valuable. Like, our strength coach, our sports psychologists, our nutritionists, our support staff, our academic advisors ... you never know what it’s going to be like when you hire some people and we’ve been really fortunate to have a group of people around our program that are pulling in the right direction, same direction.”
Of course that includes the players, too.
“You gotta have good players that execute,” Amato said. “Listen, we’re not always the perfect soccer team, but our team competes, they’re tough and they want to win. And that goes a long way. I have people and friends in the game who are like, my team’s not tough or my team doesn’t play hard. That’s not us. In six years, that has not been our problem. We got other stuff we’re working on, but that isn’t the problem.”
When Amato was hired away from Stephen F. Austin in 2013, the question posed by UA administrators was whether or not the Wildcats could consistently win games.
After all, Arizona only had two winning seasons in its first 20 years of existence. And in the three seasons prior to Amato’s arrival, the Wildcats went 12-40-7 with a paltry 4-24-3 conference record.
“My answer was yes,” Amato said. “I was confident in our support staff, my assistants, what I thought we could do in the program. But you don’t really know. We mapped out a plan, we got our feet under us, and the plan was to start off by becoming relevant and making the tournament.”
That happened in 2014, Amato’s second season, when Arizona went 11-8-2. Amato admittedly did not expect to make the postseason so quickly. He credits the players, most of whom he did not recruit, for buying into his coaching methods.
“They were just so committed to improving and getting better,” he said. “We put in a plan and it was focused around maximizing the strengths of the current players on the team. They embraced that and we just hit the ground running.”
Amato said making the NCAA Tournament accelerated what was expected to be a lengthy rebuild. It generated fan support, instilled belief within the program and boosted the perception outside of it.
No longer did UA coaches have to promise recruits that the program’s best days were ahead. They had tangible results to prove it. Now, they are landing top-25 classes on a consistent basis, mining the talent hotbeds that are Arizona and Southern California.
“It really felt like a ray of sunshine (when we made the tournament) and it was important that we were able to do that early because otherwise it’s a longer, slower process,” Amato said. “And it’s still a long process and we’re not where we want to be, but it can be longer if the players do not buy into that early.”
Several players have said what makes Amato and his staff so special is their ability to devise game plans that cater to Arizona’s strengths and/or expose opponents’ weaknesses.
Thus, UA’s style changes from year to year and game to game.
“We don’t always play the same way,” former goalkeeper Lainey Burdett said last August. “We all have grit and everything, but he knows how to adapt to other teams to get a win.”
One might say that means Arizona doesn’t have its own identity as a team, but Amato argues that is its identity.
“We adapt, evolve, play different formations,” he said. “We want the game to be fast and exciting and we press. ... We’re tough, we compete and we are forever evolving and adapting. That goes a long way in a college athletic landscape that is also always adapting and evolving.”
Amato is proud of what Arizona has accomplished under his watch, but is adamant that it hasn’t reached its ceiling yet. The program has never made it past the Sweet Sixteen, but his sights are set on Final Fours and national championships.
“We got some ground to cover till we can do that,” he admits, “but we’re making steps in the right direction.”
The most obvious way to boost the program is by renovating Mulcahy Stadium so that Arizona can offer “an elite experience all-around,” as Amato puts it. But right now there are no plans for upgrades, so Amato will continue to make the most of what he has.
That is, a new contract and a lot of good people around him.
“This is a constant evolution and I’m laser-focused on getting better,” he said. “All of us — me, Paul, the players — this feels like a perfect time to evaluate everything and get reestablished on what we’re doing moving forward.”