For the second week in a row, Arizona soccer will be tested by a ranked foe.
The Wildcats (2-2) return to Mulcahy Stadium this week to host No. 21 Texas Tech (5-0-1) and Nebraska (4-2) on Thursday and Sunday as part of the annual Wildcat Classic.
Always one of the best teams in the west, Texas Tech owns a 14-2 goal differential this season, though all six opponents were mid-majors.
“Tech is a super strong team,” said UA head coach Becca Moros. “From watching film and different stuff, they’re obviously a well-trained, confident, dynamic, athletic top level team, and that’s what we need. We need to be able to put together the best of what we do against the best of what other teams can bring, and I think Tech is going to be a huge challenge for us and a huge opportunity for us to see how far we’ve gotten in the process and the journey that we’re sort of in the middle of, so to speak.”
The Wildcats are coming off a split in Tempe, where they were handled by No. 17 LSU 2-0 on Thursday before bouncing back with a 3-2 win over Cal State Northridge on Sunday.
Looking back, Moros isn’t surprised how those games played out.
“LSU is an extremely experienced team...whereas we’re very young,” she said. “So you could see that kind of consistency in the way that they play, comfortability on the ball, and they took advantage of some areas where we were weak in the game.”
While it made for a tough afternoon, playing LSU, which rose all the way to No. 7 in the latest coaches poll, could help the Wildcats in the long run.
“I think a lot of what we have to do is not just improve what we need to improve on, but then improve our ability to do it under more and more pressure situations, against better and better teams,” Moros said.
“I think LSU gave us an opportunity to feel that challenge from a really high level, athletic, top performing team in the country, I think that was really great for us. And then Cal State Northridge, we were able to put together a lot more of what we’ve been wanting to work on and improve on. We were able to get pressure on them higher up the field, we were able to do more in terms of our build out, which is what we struggled against LSU, similar to [Utah Valley].
“Part of that is because of our continuing to work on it, and part of it is just the different styles of teams and the opportunities that were presented in the game, so I think we responded very well. We’d like to see more consistency. Certainly don’t like seeing the defensive breakdowns, but those are opportunities for us to talk about how we defend those kinds of situations so that when they come up again, because they will, that we respond the way we need to prevent teams from getting goals against us.”
After poring over the film, senior forward Jill Aguilera said the Wildcats’ line was playing too deep against LSU and the Tigers were able to exploit the extra space.
“We made that a big point to make sure that we didn’t do that against Northridge and to use our good combination passing that we didn’t do as much in the LSU game,” she said.
Aguilera scored two goals against CSUN, giving her 26 for her career, third-most in Arizona soccer history. She’s more proud of her progression as a player than she is of her place on the leaderboard. Aguilera missed her freshman season with a torn ACL and only scored six goals in 2017 and 2018 before exploding for 19 across the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
“I think that’s because of my confidence,” she said. “In the first year or two of me playing, it took me a while to feel confident on the ball. I just was more afraid of making mistakes than doing well. And that obviously really didn’t help me. And then in 2019 was my breakout season or whatever, and I think that was really attributed to my hard work in the spring in the summer, and just being more confident in my abilities, and trusting the team around me, and just being where I’m supposed to be and following the game plan.”
This season, that means playing more of a central role in Arizona’s attack.
“I’m definitely more involved in the buildup of play, which is a little bit new to me, but Becca is very, very helpful with that,” Aguilera said. “I can go to her with any questions that I have. And she’s really good at answering them and helping me through video.”
The Wildcats were missing several players to injury in Tempe, including starting midfielder Iliana Hocking, starting defender Ava McCray, and key reserves like Iyana Zimmerman, Jasmine Young and Sarah Rice.
Moros expects at least two of them to return this week, but wouldn’t say who. With so many players sidelined, the Wildcats have had to lean heavily on their underclassmen, which has yielded mixed results.
“The players have responded really well to playing a variety of positions, so I haven’t had an issue with their ability to do it,” Moros said. “But in terms of the longevity of the group and being able to compete long into the year, that’s where we’re sort of struggling a little bit on the depth charts and being able to play the right players in the right roles for the right minutes.”
A new student section
There is a new student section at Mulcahy Stadium—a small set of bleachers posted behind the south goal. Moros said assistant coach Brian Periman came up with the idea.
“The thought process is that we want to have fans right there where we’re trying to score goals,” Moros said. “But Brian was also a goalkeeper, so he knows what that can do for the other team’s goalkeeper when you have a loud cheering section for the strikers bearing down on you.”
The first students to sit in the new section were the UA men’s basketball team:
! Do you want a front row seat to the home match action ⁉️— Arizona Soccer (@ArizonaSoccer) September 6, 2021
We’ve got an all new student section at Mulcahy located on the field behind our opponents goal!
Come cheer on your Cats from the best viewpoint in the stadium ⬇️#BearDown pic.twitter.com/uYIDU9wtzC
Paul Nagy recommended Periman
Periman has been credited with a lot of other things this season, including some of Hope Hisey’s big saves, formulating scouting reports, Arizona scoring on set pieces, and the Block A that’s painted in the center circle.
Moros said former UA assistant Paul Nagy—who used to coach the backline and goalkeepers under Tony Amato—recommended Periman, a Tucson native. Moros said Hisey gave her Nagy’s phone number.
“The team is very attached to Paul,” Moros said. “A lot of them were recruited by Paul, even the girls who are new this year. A lot of them were recruited by Paul, so he still has a very huge impact on the program in the sense that these players are largely players that he recruited, that he had relationships with, that he determined were good people, good competitors, would be good for the culture here and I have to be very appreciative of that because the team has been outstanding and they are great people. I enjoy going to work every day to work with them. Paul was a huge, huge part of that.”
Nagy is married to UA softball head coach Caitlin Lowe, so he still has a stake in Arizona Athletics even though he officially stepped down from the soccer program after the 2019 season.
“He came out to our NAU game, so I think he’s going to be around a little bit,” Moros said. “The girls were really excited to see him.”
How to watch this weekend’s action...
- Thursday vs. No. 21 Texas Tech — 7 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Network
- Sunday vs. Nebraska — 1 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Network