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After long wait, Arizona soccer eager to kick off 2019 season in Tempe

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona Wildcats’ first game in 2019 will take place in 100-plus-degree heat and inside the stadium their bitter rival calls home, but they could not be more excited about it.

“We’ve been practicing nonstop,” said junior forward Jada Talley. “I feel like we deserve a game.”

They have waited long enough. Arizona was supposed to open its season last Thursday against Long Beach State, but those plans were scuttled due to lightning, though not before both teams hung around Mulcahy Stadium for three hours before heading home.

“It was a disappointment when they finally called that Long Beach State game,” said redshirt senior defender Morgan McGarry. “We were in the locker room ready to go out and play. Our manager Ryan (Vanderpool) put together this great hype video for us and we all came tearing out of the locker room—and then back in. We were all trying to stay energized and then as we waited we kind of got into a lull. ... It was to the point where it was like, ‘can we just go practice?’ So everyone’s ready to play.”

They will finally get to do so Friday at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium where the Wildcats will take on Weber State at 4 p.m. MST in the first of two games in the annual Sun Devil Desert Classic. The second game is Sunday at 11 a.m. against Tennessee Tech.

“I think really establishing our identity is going to be big for us this week, making sure we’re pressing, attacking, flying all around the field,” McGarry said. “We normally all start flying out with our press, and we’re running all around the field and it hits that 15 minute mark and sometimes it drops off a little bit. So we want to make sure we’re keeping that sustained throughout the whole entire half and game, and then making sure once we win the ball, (we) have a fast attack, collect it, winning it, playing to feet in and around the box and stuff like that.”

Neither Weber State (9-5-4) nor Tennessee Tech (7-8-2) were particularly good last season—and Weber State is coming off a 5-0 loss to Cal—so Arizona should be able to impose its will in Tempe, just as it did last season when UA comfortably beat Southeast Missouri State and New Hampshire.

UA coach Tony Amato hopes his team is even sharper this time around.

“It’s really interesting, I watched the games from last year yesterday just to kind of see where were we at that point, and there were so many detailed things that I was pretty surprised at how it looked,” he said Wednesday. “And so today, we focused on some of those details to make sure it’s better. And it wasn’t from an attacking mindset. It was some set-piece stuff. There was some defending stuff. There was some focus stuff that I didn’t think last year we were in a great place with it that weekend.”

Arizona is the only major-conference team that has not debuted yet, which can be seen as both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because the Wildcats received an extra week to prepare for the regular season, helping them combat the brevity of the preseason.

A curse because 100 practices cannot replicate the real-game experience the Wildcats would have gotten from playing Long Beach State, a perennial NCAA Tournament team.

“It’s really hard for us to [simulate] that in training,” Amato said. “Our team competes, our team works hard, but...that would have been a good test for us early on. We could easily have not won the game and that would have showed us a lot of things. Even with a win it would have showed us a lot of things, so we missed that opportunity. But we get two this weekend, and so by Monday I would expect us to be in a really different place.”

For one thing, Arizona’s newcomers won’t be so new anymore. The scorching temperatures in Tempe mean the entire roster is likely to see action at some point.

Call it baptism by fire. (Quite literally. It is forecasted to be 109 at kickoff time Friday.)

“It’s [a chance] to mesh with your team and who you’re going to be playing with the majority of the time, and building that relationship with the person that’s playing in front of you, behind you,” Talley said. “And if it’s somebody new, it’s getting a feel for how they play. For all of our freshmen it’s going to be an eye-opener.”

Despite what it symbolizes, Sun Devil Soccer Stadium has been a friendly place for the Wildcats in recent years. Arizona is 6-1-1 in Tempe over the past three seasons, including 3-0 last season when UA capped the regular season with a dominant win over ASU. (Actually 4-0 if you count Arizona’s win over ASU last spring.)

The Wildcats have never opened a season there, but at this point they are happy to play anywhere if it means they can finally get the 2019 campaign rolling.

“We’re used to it,” Amato said of playing in Tempe. “We’ve usually [played] games prior to going up there, but we’ve played (at least) two games there every year I’ve been here. We know what that looks like in terms of the meals, the hotel, the field, so we’re comfortable with it. We’re looking forward to it.

“I mean, we should be flying because we’re coming out of the gates without a game in a long time. And so my expectation is we’re going to be going 100 miles an hour and the tempo is where we need it to be right from the beginning.”

Interviews from practice