After the longest offseason in program history, the Arizona soccer team finally returns to pitch Thursday when it heads to Phoenix to face GCU at the lavish GCU Stadium.
It will be UA’s first match since Nov. 22, 2019. In between those 440 days, the coronavirus pandemic postponed their season from the fall to the spring and still has head coach Tony Amato uneasy as gameday approaches.
“My fingers are crossed, man,” he said Tuesday. “We are hoping for the players’ sake that we get a game in on Thursday. It’s really important for them because they’ve been working hard and haven’t played a game in over a year. They’re really excited to play, so honestly we feel a little on edge. It’s so close and we just hope that everyone is healthy enough to be able to play from our side and their side.”
The Wildcats are coming off a 12-7-1 season in which they advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, their third straight year reaching the postseason—a new school record.
Here is what you should know about Arizona soccer heading into the unusual 2020-21 season.
There are a lot of new players
The Wildcats have 13 freshmen, the largest crop of newcomers in the Amato era. They comprise almost half the roster, so some will have significant roles from the get-go.
It’s unclear how this class stacks up to others around the country (recruiting rankings are hard to find) but it features players from all positions. On signing day Amato described the group as athletic, gritty, tall and technical.
It’s anyone’s guess how they will actually fare in a game.
“It’s a matter of just getting them to understand what this is, because their only reference point is club soccer, which is not what college soccer is,” Amato said. “In club soccer you are categorized by age. Everyone is the same age. ... But there’s a big gap (in college) and they have to understand that and then they have to step up their game based on that.”
They do have time on their side. Normally, newcomers arrive in July and only have two weeks of practice before being thrust into their first game. These freshmen had the entire fall semester and all of January to prepare for this moment.
However, the pandemic limited team activities for most of that time, so Amato isn’t sure how big of an advantage it actually is.
“They’ve all done a good job, they’ve all worked hard and are reasonable shape to put them out there, they have an idea of what this is going to look like,” he said. “Now we just need to get some college games under their belt. It’ll be a learn on the job situation but we’re expecting every freshman to go out there and play at some point this season and our standard isn’t going to drop. They’re going to have to help us win those games and I know their confidence has grown even in just the last week, and I know our older players’ confidence in them has grown. We’re gonna have to keep that train moving forward.”
The attack is senior-heavy
While the Wildcats have a young roster, their attack will be led by a core of seniors in Hannah Clifford, Jada Talley and Jill Aguilera. There is also junior Iyana Zimmerman, who has been dynamic when healthy.
Talley and Aguilera are the centerpieces. They scored 10 and nine goals respectively last season, leading an Arizona offense that set the school record for most goals in a season (42).
Both were acquired by NWSL teams in January but will remain with the Wildcats through the fall, giving them a chance to break the program’s all-time scoring record.
Talley is 15 goals shy. Aguilera is 18.
“They’re fast, they can play, they can finish,” Amato said. “Jill is left-footed. Jada can finish the chances she gets and create chances for other people. It’s hard to stop one dynamic attacker let alone two and the more you have, the better. But those two are able to play off each other. When one is getting double teamed, the other one can get loose or vice versa.”
Jordan Hall could add even more athleticism up front. The freshman from Georgia was one of two goalscorers in the team’s Red-Blue scrimmage in November. There is also freshman Megan Chelf, a scrappy SoCal Blues product who broke Corona Del Mar High School’s records for goals (58) and assists (34).
“I mean, we have some dynamic attackers, freshmen included,” Amato said. “And so ultimately it’s going to be about, how do we get them the ball? And how do we get it to them quickly to create chances by being dynamic attackers and not just create one or two chances a game and have to be super clinical in front of goal to score those. We want to create a lot of volume chances.”
Sabrina Enciso will anchor a retooled backline
The frontline is loaded with experience, but the backline has to replace three starters. That unit allowed 29 goals last season, the third-most in the Pac-12, so there is certainly room for improvement.
Senior Sabrina Enciso, Talley’s best friend and roommate, is entering her fourth season as UA’s starting left back and will steady the backline. She is a physical defender known for her long throw-ins. Sophomore Mariah Dunn is poised to start at right back. She hardly played last season but was a shutdown defender for the SoCal Blues, with whom she won four national championships.
Junior Ava McCray, once a member of the Big West All-Freshman Team at Cal Poly, is slated to start at centerback. She is a dominant presence in the air and took on a starting role down the stretch of the 2019 season.
“And then some of the new players are going to have to fill the void, so that’s what we’re looking at now,” Amato said. “And what we’ve always talked about is we’re pressing team defensively and the only way that works is if the whole team defends. Like we have high expectations of Jill and Jada defending, and they have to do that higher up the field and that often helps protect the backline or any inexperience you might have.”
The midfield will lean on underclassmen
For years, Arizona’s midfield was anchored by Kennedy Kieneker and Kelcey Cavarra, two gritty players who did the dirty work. They are gone now as Kieneker graduated after the 2018 season and Cavarra graduated in 2019 after appearing in every game over the past four seasons.
Junior Iliana Hocking, a tenacious tackler and header in her own right, is an obvious successor. Speedy, versatile sophomore Madison Goerlinger will be an option in the midfield too (and everywhere else on the pitch, for that matter).
Amato also listed freshmen Alex Day, Tianna Sidtikun and Sarah Rice as options in that role. There is also junior Grace Santos, a savvy center midfielder who scored in Arizona’s second-round NCAA Tournament game and made the CAA All-Freshman Team at William & Mary in 2018. The 5-foot-11 Day would add some height to an otherwise short lineup.
“There’s some freshmen that’ll get some minutes in there, but we know we do have players with some experience that can play in there,” Amato said.
Hope Hisey is back in goal after a standout freshman season
Hisey had huge shoes...err...gloves to fill as a freshman last season, taking the torch from all-time shutouts leader Lainey Burdett. Hisey split starts with Kendyll Humphreys, who has since transferred, to begin the season before winning the job outright.
And while Hisey had her fair share of ups and downs like all first-year players do, she turned in a season worthy of Pac-12 All-Freshman honors by logging 64 saves and seven clean sheets.
She had a signature performance at Washington State, where she made several acrobatic saves to help the Wildcats escape with a 1-0 road win over a Cougars team that wound up making the Final Four.
A former basketball player, Hisey is a tall, springy shot-stopper who is still nailing down the nuances of the position. She will be backed up by freshmen Samantha Hauk and Alani Mexia.
“Obviously being in your second year, you have more of a voice than maybe you had as a freshman in goal, so just setting the wall and organizing set pieces,” Amato said of Hisey. “We definitely gave up some goals on set pieces last year that we need to improve on, and so she is taking hold of that as an experienced goalkeeper to help make sure that’s better.”
Hisey attended Canyon del Oro High School and is the only Tucson native on the roster, a title she takes great pride in.
“It’s one of the main reasons why I’m here and why I continue to work every day, just because I was sitting in those stands ever since I was in middle school,” she said earlier this offseason. “And to be able to go out and perform for the people who are now sitting in the stands and the community is great. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to pay it forward. There were a lot of kids who came up to me who play for the club that I played for and some of them say, ‘oh, I like to see a Tucson kid be able to go and play in the best conference in the country.’ It’s pretty inspiring for them and it’s also a motivating factor for me when I hear these stories from these kids because I was once them.”
The Pac-12 is loaded like always
Five Pac-12 teams—Stanford (3), UCLA (4), USC (14), Cal (16) and Washington State (19)—are in TopDrawerSoccer’s preseason Top 25. That is the most of any conference, which is unsurprising.
Stanford, UCLA and WSU all made the Final Four last season and Amato reckons USC would have too if not for some injuries to their star players. In all, eight Pac-12 teams made the NCAA Tournament, while a much-improved Oregon State team was right on the bubble.
Simply put, every game is a grind. And the way Arizona’s conference schedule lays out, it faces the lesser teams on the road, making those games all the more difficult. It also means they are likely to be underdogs in many of their Pac-12 home games, such as when they host Stanford, UCLA, Cal and WSU.
“It makes it a big challenge because you’ve got to go to places like Colorado and Utah where you have a flight in between and altitude and weather challenges and you have to find a way to pick up points,” Amato said. “But that’s the way the schedule falls and you’ve got to beat the teams in front of you. But travel is a little tricky this spring and whether you’re gonna have fans or not is tricky, so I think it’s a challenge this year that we can meet with some of those sidebars thrown in there that it may swing it more in our favor than it would in a different year.”
The non-conference schedule is weaker than usual
Amato is usually very keen on scheduling non-conference opponents that have a quality RPI so that his team can build the best résumé possible come Selection Monday. He doesn’t have that luxury this season. The coronavirus pandemic has forced programs to schedule locally in order to limit spending.
Arizona’s four non-conference opponents—GCU, UTEP, New Mexico State and NAU—are all within driving distance. NAU is the only one Arizona has played in the regular season under Amato, and that was all the way back in 2015. UTEP is the only one coming off a winning season, but Arizona blasted them 5-0 in a spring exhibition last February. (Clifford had a hat trick and Talley had a brace.)
The good news is the NCAA selection committee is not expected to weigh RPI as heavily this season knowing that schedules are wonky.
That doesn’t mean these games aren’t important.
“What we really want to see is what we are missing in training,” Amato said of Thursday’s opener. “We’ve been trying to expose things in training that we know could come out in a live game, and so we’re really interested to see how that plays out because we just haven’t played a game in so long. And then we’re interested to see how our new players respond. This will be their first college game, so we’ll have to see how they respond and some always respond better than others.”
Arizona plays ASU twice
The non-conference season is shorter this year, so Pac-12 teams will play their conference rival twice this season in order to pick up an extra game. That means we get two Arizona-ASU matches: one at UA on March 19 and the other at ASU on April 16. The one in Tempe is the only one that counts toward the conference standings, though.
On the surface, playing the Sun Devils twice is good news for the Wildcats. They have beaten ASU four straight years. However, it would be foolish to write the Sun Devils off. All four of those wins were by one goal. That is more or less how the series has played out over the years, even when one team is significantly higher in the standings.
“We’ve been able to pull out those type of games lately, but it’ll be a challenge this year to beat them twice,” Amato said. “That’ll be something that we’ll have to make sure we’re up for and prepared for.”
Making the NCAA Tournament will be more difficult than ever
Arizona has been a regular in the NCAA Tournament for several years now, but making the field this year will be unlike any other. Only 48 teams will receive a bid instead of 64. The majority of those will go to an automatic qualifier from each conference, leaving less than 20 at-large bids to go around.
So instead of eight Pac-12 teams reaching the postseason, there might only be four or five. If that.
“The approach doesn’t change,” Amato said. “Our goal would be to make sure we try and win every game like we’ve always done and see where that gets us by the end of the year. And we know that we’re gonna have to be in a position of top three or four to even have a chance.”
How doable is that? Here is how Arizona has finished in the Pac-12 in Amato’s first seven seasons:
- 2013: T-8th (4-6-1)
- 2014: 9th (4-6-1)
- 2015: T-4th (6-4-1)
- 2016: 7th (4-7-0)
- 2017: 4th (7-2-2)
- 2018: T-5th (5-4-2)
- 2019: T-6th (5-5-1)
COVID has changed more than just the schedule
We would be remiss to preview this season without acknowledging some of the changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic, aside from the fact that the season is starting in February instead of August. (Hey, at least Arizona won’t have to endure 100-degree weather!)
Players are not required to wear masks on the pitch, but everyone else—from coaches, to staffers, to referees, to bench players—is.
Travel will be different too. Arizona’s first out-of-state trip isn’t until mid-March, so Amato hasn’t given much thought about how flights and lodging will work. But if it is anything like how Arizona women’s basketball is doing it, the players and coaches will basically be isolated in their hotel rooms and all team meals will be grab-and-go. Any interaction between players and coaches will be limited to their roommates or extremely small groups.
On flights and bus rides, the players will be seated in strategical ways so that if one were to test positive for COVID-19, contact tracing won’t wipe out a whole position group or a hoard of key players. Amato said teams need to have 15 or 16 healthy players including a goalkeeper to avoid a cancellation.
“We are laughing, like it’s going to take us eight hours to do the bus chart,” Amato said. “It’s a lot and we’re just trying to figure out how we’re going two hours away up and back in the same day. It’s a little tricky.”
Fans are banned at Pac-12 matches indefinitely and parents are only OK at each school’s discretion. As of now, they will not be allowed to attend Arizona’s matches. Not even Amato’s wife Samantha, who is basically a staff member, can be there.
“It’s going to be like the first season when I got here,” Amato laughed. “I think we had seven season-ticket holders and that was about it. But one of my favorite things about the University of Arizona in general is the vibe and the energy. ... That’s not what’s going on lately (due to COVID) so we understand that we’ll have to create our own vibe and energy.”
It sure beats the alternative of not playing at all.
“We’re excited,” Talley said. “I feel like we just need to play at this point. It’s been so long.”