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Arizona soccer’s depth, determination to be tested by No. 17 LSU in Tempe

Photo by Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

Among the many differences Becca Moros sees between college and professional soccer is student-athletes having to push through two games in one weekend. The condensed schedule reduces travel expenses, sure, but is costly in other ways.

“More one-game weeks would be better for all the teams,” the rookie head coach said. “For the health, for the ability to train your team and keep everybody fit and competitive, and to, you know, make for better overall performances.”

The Arizona Wildcats (1-1) have been lucky so far, playing four matches, including two exhibitions, in four weeks. Things will ramp up significantly this weekend in Tempe when they face No. 17 LSU (4-0) and Cal State Northridge (1-3) on Thursday and Sunday at the annual Sun Devil Desert Classic.

It will be a preview of a typical Thursday-Sunday setup in the Pac-12. How the Wildcats handle a heavier workload remains to be seen. They are already banged up as it is. Moros said only 20 of their 28 players will be available due to injuries.

Among the hobbled players are starting defender Sarah Rice and starting midfielder Iliana Hocking, who tweaked her hamstring in warmups before the NAU game last Friday.

Arizona will also have to battle the blazing heat in Tempe, where temperatures could reach triple digits. Thursday’s matinee vs. LSU, which will air on the Pac-12 Network, kicks off at 1 p.m.

“It’s going to be pretty brutal,” said senior defender Ava McCray.

“Yeah, it’s definitely preparing your body, taking in the calories that you need, hydrating, stretching, all that stuff,” added junior midfielder Madison Goerlinger.

It’s possible that all 20 available players will see the field. That’s exactly how many played the last time the Wildcats participated in the Sun Devil Desert Classic, albeit that was in 2019 under a different coaching staff.

Moros has been liberal with her substitution patterns so far, so she’s not expecting major changes to the rotation.

“I feel like I’m substituting a lot,” she said. “I also try to be respectful of the fact that players need a certain amount of time to get in the game, so I’m not begging to send somebody in for five minutes and then pull them out again.”

LSU will be Arizona’s toughest opponent to date. Ranked for the first time since 2019, the Tigers are 4-0 with a 14-2 goal differential. They have impressive road wins over No. 15 South Florida and No. 19 UCF.

McCray is expecting a “hard, physical” matchup.

“They’re big girls,” she said.

Goerlinger agreed, saying the Wildcats will need to fight for every first- and second-ball.

“What I’m looking for is, one, our mentality going into the game and how we compete. And two, can we take another step forward from NAU and see more of what it is that we’re becoming?” Moros said. “Maybe we’re ready to take that next step, maybe it’ll take a little bit longer but I think we’ve trained well in the time that we’ve had this week and we’re trending in the right direction.”

Moros added that the team’s next step is making quicker decisions with the ball so it can complete more passes in tight spaces. That’s key in Arizona’s new possession-oriented offense, which has been hit or miss so far.

Including two exhibitions, the Wildcats have scored four goals in four games. They got shut out by GCU and Utah Valley but also scored two goals in wins over San Diego State and, most recently, NAU.

“We have definitely improved with not only connecting with passes but our creativity level has definitely improved too,” Goerlinger said. “You can definitely see it on film.”

Beating LSU would build more belief in the new system and boost Arizona’s NCAA Tournament résumé.

“This is a huge game for us,” Moros said, “and LSU is probably looking at it the same way.”

Goerlinger takes a trip down memory lane

Returning to Tempe will bring back fond memories for Goerlinger, whose first career game, start and goal came at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium in 2019. Then a freshman, she headed in a corner kick from Morgan McGarry just two minutes into an eventual 6-0 win over Weber State.

“Luckily I was there in the right spot and got the head on it, so hopefully I can do it again this weekend,” Goerlinger said Wednesday. “It’s definitely going to be something to always remember.”

Goerlinger’s speed and versatility earned her immediate playing time as a freshman, but her role has increased over the last two years.

“She’s a really good leader for us,” Moros said. “She’s stable and consistent on the field, which I think helps stabilize the rest of the team and give us some confidence as a group. She’s a vocal leader, she’s organizing us, she’s versatile in terms of her speed and those qualities but also her ability to play make and play quickly. She’s learning very quickly. So I think that’s the biggest thing—if you know a player has that kind of momentum and progressing forward at a good clip, then you just want to keep them going and keep stimulating them and keep letting them do what they do.”

Christiansen shining early

Goerlinger has been sharing the midfield with freshman Gianna Christiansen, who has started every game so far. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Christiansen was an All-American at Santa Margarita High School in Orange County, and starred for the SoCal Blues, one of the top clubs in the country, before signing with the Wildcats last fall.

“I love her game,” Goerlinger said. “She is so technical and savvy, and I think that’s something that we were missing in the midfield. Having her to be able to find the little technical passes is definitely important.”

Multiple treks to Tempe

The Sun Devil Desert Classic is usually a Friday-Sunday event. Because it’s Thursday-Sunday this year, and both games kick off early, the Wildcats will be spending more time on I-10.

They will spend Wednesday night in Tempe, drive back to Tucson after Thursday’s game vs. LSU, drive back up on Saturday, stay another night in Tempe, and play Cal State Northridge on Sunday morning before heading back to Tucson for good.

“It’s a lot of back and forth,” McCray laughed. “Obviously I’d like to stay there—it’s less back and forth, I get a little carsick—but it’s OK.”

Becca Moros interview

Ava McCray and Madison Goerlinger interview