Long before Tony Amato was hired by Arizona, he enjoyed a Hall of Fame career at Rollins College as a scrappy forward who could pop up with a goal at any moment.
“I was the little runt out there running around against 6-foot-4 center backs, so it was either get scrappy or not be on the field,” he said. “So I had to press to be scrappy.”
Now, that philosophy bleeds into the team he coaches. Amato’s Arizona Wildcats are known for their high press, a defensive system that emphasizes limiting time and space by pressuring the ball at all times, on all parts of the field (though preferably in the opponent’s half).
Think of hungry dogs chasing a bone.
“We try to condense the field and get as many people as we can into a small space and then win the ball and fly from there,” said outside back Morgan McGarry.
Combine that approach with the sweltering heat the Wildcats host their home games in, and it means their opponents are often left gasping for air.
“We want them to know that they’re in a dogfight, know that we’re going to come out and run them and press them and that we’re going to give it our all for 90 minutes,” McGarry said. “And we’re not gonna let off. It’s not going to be a game where you’re able to keep possession and pass it around and jog around the field the entire time. We want them to be exhausted after 10 minutes against us.”
No better example than last Sunday when the Wildcats scored three goals within the first 10 minutes of their win over UC Irvine. The Anteaters committed three turnovers in their half of the field, which the Wildcats promptly converted into scores.
“A lot of schools like to play out of the back, like to play simple,” said forward Brooke Wilson, who leads Arizona with four goals. “Here, it’s kind of like get the ball forward, let’s score goals, let’s run, let’s attack, and let’s do that with a lot of energy.”
If that sounds like a fun brand of soccer, that’s because it’s designed to be.
“You know how soccer looks the last 10 minutes of the game when you’re down a goal where it’s pretty fun and energetic and urgent? We just decided years and years and years ago we want to make it look like that all the time,” Amato said.
“Obviously there’s a lot of risk in that, but we’re willing to do that and that’s our approach and to be fearless and compete. And we just think it’s engaging, it’s fun, it’s entertaining. When we don’t have the ball, we want it back as quick as we can. And when we have it, we want to create as many scoring chances as we can. So that’s really the base behind it.”
And, hey, it works.
The Wildcats (4-0) are one of just two teams in the country that has yet to concede a goal. They also rank seventh in goals scored per game (3.75).
With a sparkling 15-0 goal differential and a 75-13 shot differential, one could argue Arizona has the best mix of offensive firepower and defensive mettle it has ever had.
“We have a lot more technical players than we’ve had in the past,” said McGarry, a fifth-year senior. “So instead of just trying to find that long ball and use our speed and athleticism to get behind people, we’re able to connect passes underneath, beat people on the dribble, get combinations around them and really take advantage of playing behind (the defense). And then also in front of the defense and breaking people down that way.”
A tremendous fitness level is required for high-pressing teams to be effective, and these Wildcats have that too. Amato has said it is the best-conditioned team he has ever had, citing their fitness scores from summer workouts as proof.
All 27 players passed the infamous beep and shuttle run tests. Twelve of those players have tallied at least one goal or assist. Fourteen have started at least two games.
“We have such a deep team this year that Tony is able to sub people in and out and get fresh legs,” McGarry said. “And that’s why we worked so hard with Jim (Krumpos) this summer just to make sure we’re able to play the way we want to.”
When opponents see Arizona on their schedule, Wilson wants them to be intimidated.
“I think when other coaches scout us, they are probably intimidated on how high we press, and how fast we are, and how much energy we all have, and how long we can all last,” she said. “We don’t just have one person who has scored all of our goals. It’s pretty spread out across the board, and I think that shows that we have a lot of people that the other teams need to defend.”
By bringing their backline near the center line, the Wildcats leave themselves vulnerable to long balls and quick counters. Teams with skilled and composed players, like the Santa Clara squad the Wildcats face on the road Friday, can put Arizona’s press on its heels with precise passing.
It’s why high pressing isn’t all that common in the Pac-12, where each team is brimming with talent, but it’s Arizona’s identity and the program’s recent track record shows there is no reason to deviate from it.
“We know a lot of people don’t want to [high press] because it can open you up,” Amato said. “I tell Paul (Nagy) that all the time. I get it, it’s not always sound defensively in terms of what people think of soccer and keeping a perfect shape, but that’s why we have goalkeepers who step up and make saves.
“So, it’s a little riskier, but we’re fearless on that approach, and we’re sticking to it.”