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Arizona soccer notebook: On replacing a legend, recruits, style of play, and more

arizona-soccer-notebook-recruits-style-of-play-facilities-aguilera-replacement Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Last year wasn’t the easiest for anyone in the Arizona soccer program. Former head coach Tony Amato left for Florida and was not replaced until June 16, 2021, just over two months before the fall season was to begin. It left first-year head coach Becca Moros with little time to get to know her players and implement a vastly new system for the 2021 season.

It was a difficult year as far as the record goes. The Wildcats finished 5-13 and only won two Pac-12 matches. Still, Moros thinks it went as well as it could because of the kind of players Amato recruited to the program.

“It was good,” she said. “It was exciting. It was definitely learning on the job, getting here meeting everybody all at once, and trying to figure out people’s personalities and what they need. Why did they choose Arizona in the first place? And making sure that we’re kind of investing in building relationships and trust, and then really worrying about team after that, because it’s hard to come together as a team, if you don’t know each other, you don’t trust each other, and you don’t sort of build a common identity. And so I think that was really our main focus when we got here. And the girls were awesome...The previous coaching staff did an amazing job recruiting them, as people and players. So I think we got really lucky, getting handed this group of players.”

Moros has been on the job for almost exactly one year now. She was able to recruit, have a spring training season, and generally get to know her current players better. That has her feeling better prepared for the upcoming 2022 season that will begin in mid-August.

On life after an all-time great

The Wildcats lost their career leader in goals scored when Jill Aguilera exhausted her eligibility after last season. She’s not someone who will be easily replaced by a single player.

“I don’t think you can ever truly replace someone like that,” Moros said. “Jill’s journey from when she first got here to where she was when she finished and graduated, that was a process for her growth and development and building herself into the powerful player that she was when she finished here.”

It will be up to others to create their own journey and develop now. For Moros, it’s about carrying on Aguilera’s legacy rather than trying to replace her.

“We have players who have abilities that are great,” Moros said. “But it’s up to them what they do with that and how it fits in with what we’re doing. I think, at the end of the day, our goal will be to pick up Jill’s legacy and make sure that each of us is doing a little bit more to sort of carry a bit of her with us on the field. But I think the players, both individually and collectively can do that job.”

On recruiting

Much of building on Aguilera’s legacy will fall on the returning players. Moros pointed to Hope Hisey, Mariah Dunn, Madison Goerlinger, and Iliana Hocking as the most vital in terms of leadership.

“There’s a couple players in that class have already emerged as leaders,” Moros said. “There’s a couple of players in that class that play a lot, so they’re leaders whether they want to be or not. And so kind of that group, but our five sort of upperclassmen, which, you know, we’ve got Madison Goerlinger, Hope Hisey, and Mariah Dunn are the true seniors. This is their senior class. And those guys, they all play a ton and players look to them and they lead on the field and off the field. So they’re going to be extremely critical. With Iliana Hocking coming back, and she’s got just a wealth of experience. She’s the person in practice who is going to kick you the hardest, so she sets a standard and a tone there, which is really important, especially if you’re on a team like ours.”

Those players will be vital in helping the first recruiting class of the Moros era build the expectations. According to the coach, that shouldn’t be a difficult task. Moros believes the incoming class consists of good culture recruits who can help build the program.

“We’ve put together a class of players who maybe aren’t the sexiest recruits on paper, but they’re the kind of players that everybody’s going to want to play with,” Moros said. “They’re the kind of players are going to elevate the level of the program overall. And they’re going to be consistent, hard-working players on the field, and they’re also very good students in the classroom. So in terms of where they are and what they’re going to do for a culture, I think they’re an extremely good group of people who are going to both enjoy themselves, but enjoy working really hard and building a legacy here for us.”

It’s an eight-player class headlined by Angela Baron, a center back out of Keller, Texas who also plays for the Colombian national team, and goalkeeper Logan McGruder out of Florida. In total, the class includes two forwards, three defenders, two midfielders, and a goalkeeper.

Moros also brought in UCLA transfer Hannah Mitchell. The goalkeeper has played for the Scotland U19 national team, but has limited experience at the collegiate level. She made her college debut for the Bruins last season as a redshirt junior.

The recruiting process was a new one for Moros, but she was able to use skills she gained as an assistant coach on the pro circuit. Player evaluation was old hat for Moros, but there’s more to college recruiting than that and not arriving until July 2021 put a crimp into her ability to do it the way she might have liked. The relationships with the players and their families were more difficult to build with so little time to work.

“I think when you’re recruiting, your goal is to get the right people here, right soccer players, but also the right people,” Moros said. “And so I think that was actually the harder piece of getting to know people on a short timeline.”

The advantage the incoming class has over last year’s players is that the expectations and style were introduced last season. The entire group won’t be learning on the fly.

“I think there were moments (last season) where they showed how comfortable they were,” Moros said. “But the consistency of it wasn’t there, and I think they would tell you the same things. There were games where we really felt we were turning a corner and we were going to be able to have that identity and it was going to show up week in and week out, and then we couldn’t put it all together, or we’d lose our way in a game and we had trouble getting it back. And so I think they were going through that discovery process and building that identity the entire season. And I think probably in the spring that solidified a little bit more, but bringing in some new players, not because there’ll be better at it, but because they’ll come into an already formed system, whereas these guys didn’t. We were making it all together at the same time, whereas the players who are coming in next year will fit into a really trained team, and it will be easier for them.”

On style of play

The skill evaluation piece of recruiting is heavily influenced by the style of play that Moros prefers.

“There’s only one way that I want to play and only one style that I want to coach so we’re going to build that foundation one step at a time,” Moros said.

That style involves possessing the ball as much as possible and trying to force the defense to make unsound decisions.

“We’re a possession team,” Moros said. So we want the ball, we want the ball a lot, having the ball is the most fun part of the game. And so we want to have a really good time with the ball. With that said, it’s a positional possession style. So you’re possessing the ball with a focus of disorienting the other team and then picking more and more aggressive positions yourself as as you move the ball around. So one of the things that happens when you’re constantly passing and moving the ball is the other team never can sit defensively and orient themselves around a fixed position. So you’re making them make constant decisions. So if you’re sharp, and as you make them make those constant decisions, there comes a moment where there’s an advantage that’s been created, and how quickly can the players on the field recognize that moment, and then capitalize on it.”

There have been questions about whether being that committed to this particular style of play will allow Arizona to be successful, but Moros is unconcerned.

“That’s the game that I love,” she said. “And I feel like there’s endless opportunity to grow within that style of play. And I feel like when it’s done well, it’s the most dominant form of soccer where you’re just in control of everything and yeah, I mean, it’s the most fun way to play. It’s prettiest to watch. It’s the most clever and intelligent and demands the most sophistication from the players, the most technical proficiency. I mean, it’s just excellence across the board. So I mean, I want to see us play the best soccer in the country.”

On facilities

It’s not a secret that the facilities at Mulcahy Stadium are not elite. Former players have called the home locker room a “broom closet.” There are no locker rooms for the visiting team. Some of those concerns will be addressed in the coming years.

Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said that the changes are still in the study phase, but the university already purchased some of the property at the Sabbar Shrine Center on Tucson Boulevard, which lies across the street from the stadium. UA is still evaluating to see what part of the facility can be adapted for the use of both soccer and track and field and what needs to be built.

Moros said that some plans for the facilities can be done fairly quickly, but others are “pie in the sky” and will require some fundraising. She sees the importance of the facilities in attracting recruits, but she doesn’t see them as a stumbling block for the team being successful on the field.

“Obviously, facilities are a big deal in sports,” Moros said. “And it’s a big deal in recruiting. Some of that stuff is just appearance and some of it is what you really actually need to be successful in terms of recruiting. The better your facilities are, the easier it is to recruit. But in terms of putting together a top championship team, you can do that with some pretty limited resources at times and I’ve seen it. One of the best teams I played on in the pro league was one of the least resource-rich teams in the league, but everything from the video analysis to training environments and the professional approach to everything was top class. So at the end of the day, you felt like you were a part of something really important, and you trained like you are going to be the best and we went to championships because of that. And so those pieces we can have here without changing a single thing.”