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Taking Stock: How Arizona soccer is looking under coach Tony Amato

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

It may seem like college sports are always going on, but July is the one month of the year when no Arizona Wildcats teams are in action. Yep, we’re as sad about that as you are.

Before you know it, the 2019-20 seasons will be under way for Arizona’s 19 men’s and women’s sports. But in the meantime, now is the perfect opportunity to assess how each of these programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks we’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now (as well as looking into the near future). You can find all our evaluations at the bottom of the page.

Next up: Tony Amato’s women’s soccer squad.

How it looked before

Arizona soccer was a downtrodden, bottom-of-the barrel program when the UA hired Amato away from Stephen F. Austin after the 2012 season.

From its inception in 1994 to 2012, Arizona soccer compiled a 117-221-31 record, with only two winning seasons (2004 and 2005). Those were also the only times Arizona made the NCAA Tournament.

And to give you a better idea of the immediate state of the program when Amato inherited it, the Wildcats went 16-55-7 in the four seasons prior to his arrival, never winning more than two Pac-12 games.

Arizona’s conference record during that four-year stretch? 5-34-3. Ouch.

Where things stand now

Taking all that into account, maybe the most impressive thing Amato has done with the Wildcats is avoid losing seasons. They have not had one under his direction. The closest they came was in 2016 when Arizona went 9-9-1 and missed the NCAA Tournament.

In all, the Wildcats are 67-41-15 in six seasons under Amato, including a 30-29-7 mark in the Pac-12, making him the winningest coach in program history in terms of wins and win percentage (it’s not even close when it comes to the latter).

Arizona has made the NCAA Tournament four times in the last five years, advancing to the second round or better in all four appearances, including the program’s second-ever Sweet Sixteen in 2015.

The Wildcats won a program-record seven Pac-12 games in 2017 and went 13-6-2 overall in 2018, showing they can sustain their upward trend. Right now you could argue that Arizona is the best non-California program in the West.

How has Amato turned it around? Adaptivity has been a big thing. In the early years of his tenure the Wildcats made up for their lack of talent by high-pressing and playing direct soccer. Their use of long balls and flip throw-ins was unconventional but effective. So much so that it rubbed some of their competitors the wrong way.

But as the wins have piled up, so too has the level of talent within the program. Gimmicks (if you want to call them that) like flip-throws are no longer needed. Arizona still prides itself on grit and high-pressing, but it now plays a more possession-oriented game, able to connect passes and create goals in the run of play.

Arizona’s recruiting classes have received national recognition in each of the past two years, and the 2019 squad may very well be the most talented in program history, as it returns eight starters and adds nine talented newcomers.

One big question

Will Arizona soccer ever be elite? As good as Arizona has been under Amato, it has only reached one Sweet Sixteen and has yet to finish better than fourth in the Pac-12. But that says more about the strength of the conference than it does of UA’s shortcomings.

Stanford, USC, and UCLA are perennial national championship contenders, and aside from an overtime win against the Trojans at the L.A. Coliseum in 2013, Arizona hasn’t been able to topple them. Not many programs can.

While Arizona soccer has a lot going for it—its recent track record, its remodeled locker room in McKale Center, its proximity to the talent hotbed that is Southern California, and the allure of the Pac-12, to name a few things—it could sorely use a facility upgrade.

The bleachers at Mulcahy Stadium pale in comparison to the stadiums you see at similar-caliber programs around the country. And as college coaches will tell you, today’s athletes are drawn to schools with flashy facilities.

Arizona already recruits well as it is, but imagine the kind of talent it could haul in—and the fan support it could generate—if it had a state-of-the-art stadium to call home. (It wouldn’t hurt if that stadium also happened to be on campus too.)

No upgrades are on the docket right now, and a new venue still might not be enough for the Wildcats to compete with powerhouses like Stanford and UCLA, but it could be what they need to elevate the program to a point where it’s making regular trips to the Sweet Sixteen and its first-ever Elite Eight.

Until then, the Wildcats have to continue embracing their role as an underdog.