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Why Arizona soccer’s adaptability will be tested more than ever in 2020

It’s not just a pandemic they have to overcome

Photo by Kelani Falasco

It was around this time two years ago when the Mulcahy Stadium pitch was in such dire shape that Arizona soccer was forced to hold preseason training, an exhibition, and even some regular-season practices at Kino Sports Complex.

The Wildcats won that “home” exhibition by five goals, then went on to win 13 games, the third-most in program history, showing their ability to adapt when adversity struck.

That’s just what they do.

“We founded the program on being able to think outside the box and overcome obstacles and present things differently,” head coach Tony Amato said. “That’s a message we shared from the moment we got here and we’ve been able to do that over the years.”

They’ll need that mindset more than ever this season...if there is a season. They’re facing obstacles they’ve never encountered before, none greater than the coronavirus pandemic that is threatening to delay or, worse, cancel the 2020 campaign.

And while Amato is still optimistic that the Wildcats will be able to begin preseason practices on Aug. 3 like they’re supposed to, it’s becoming unlikelier by the day, with a surge of coronavirus cases in Arizona delaying the team’s return to campus.

That was supposed to happen July 13; now it’s TBD.

College soccer teams are used to short turnarounds, with their first matches usually only a couple weeks after their first practice, but this year could take that to a new extreme.

Advantage Arizona?

“Our players are committed to doing the work at home right now, getting ready, getting fit, and working out,” Amato said. “And if we had to play in a day’s notice I know they would be ready.”

A bold claim considering 13 of Arizona’s 27 players are newcomers, the largest freshman class in the Amato era. And with five starters gone from last year’s 12-win team, at least a couple newbies will need to produce immediately in order for Arizona to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year.

Plenty of freshmen have done that before, but previous classes weren’t dealing with a pandemic, and they were able to learn under a coaching staff that was well in sync.

For the first time in Amato’s Arizona tenure, he won’t have Paul Nagy coaching up the goalkeepers or guiding the backline. He stepped down this summer after seven seasons as Amato’s right-hand man.

Amato’s other assistant, Sandy Davison, is only in her second season on the job, meaning the coaching staff will be trying to figure things out just as much as the players are.

Sure, Arizona returns some key talent like seniors Jada Talley and Jill Aguilera, who in 2019 became the first duo in school history to score nine or more goals in the same season, but junior midfielder Iliana Hocking, whose status for the season is in question because of a hip injury, made an astute point the other day.

“You have to adapt around all the new girls as well,” she said. “You can’t just say the returners were good at this, we’re gonna stick with this.”

The mountain of uncertainty explains why UA players have used words like “interesting”, “different” and “developmental” to describe the upcoming season.

Yes, even “difficult” too.

Every excuse is there for them to slip up. Assuming they will do so would be ignoring the program’s recent history.

Arizona has never had a losing season under Amato, a striking stat given the strength of the Pac-12 and the fact they went 12-40-7 in the three seasons before his arrival.

They press, they play to their strengths, and they refuse to feel sorry for themselves even though they could every single time they pull into Mulcahy Stadium, arguably the worst athletic facility at the UA (even when the pitch is pristine).

“So honestly I think we have an advantage over a lot of the other teams that we play because they’re used to having everything lined up perfectly,” said Aguilera, who’s overcome an ACL tear to become one of the best scorers in the Pac-12. “They have their same routine that they have to do before every single game or they have to prepare a certain way to be able to perform better. But we as a team have a really good mindset to be like, ‘Oh, this didn’t work out, alright it’s game time, let’s just do it.’”

At this point it’s anyone’s guess when it will be “game time” again.

The Wildcats usually release their schedule in the spring, but it’s July now and nothing’s been announced. They are still putting on the finishing touches after they were forced to rework much of the non-conference slate to include more regional opponents in the wake of the pandemic.

A schedule that was supposed to include Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin will now feature more opponents within driving distance like Grand Canyon, NAU and UTEP.

Maybe. Things can change at any time. Who knows, it could be next spring before the Wildcats can take the field again.

They don’t care.

Just tell them when and where.

“I mean, there’s a million examples I could give you where things would have been easy to make excuses on why we couldn’t do well, and we’ve always just gone with a solve-problem mentality,” Amato said. “Let’s not make excuses. Let’s be more of an And Team. This is the situation and we still need to move on and play well. And this seems more than ever a time to really make sure that shines through.”