It was so close last season. A big upset win over USC looked like it might seal the deal for Arizona soccer and put the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament in head coach Becca Moros’ second season at the helm. Then came the season-ending loss to Arizona State, and it didn’t happen. Getting back there was the goal this season, and the Wildcats might have left some opportunities on the table in the nonconference.
“I think last year we had a more competitive schedule in the nonconference and one of the, I think, top 25 most difficult schedules in the country,” Moros said. “And this year, I don’t think our schedule was as difficult as last year, so it’s going to be important to do well in the Pac for us.”
The Pac-12 has four teams in the United Soccer Coaches top 25 as conference play starts. Stanford (2) and UCLA (5) present the biggest challenges. It drops considerably from there with the only other two teams—Colorado (20) and Washington State (24)—near the end of the rankings.
The RPI is even less impressed. The Cardinal sit at No. 4. UCLA is all the way down at No. 17. USC at No. 22 is the only other Pac-12 team in the top 40 of the RPI.
In Arizona’s favor, it is one of the top five Pac-12 teams in RPI. Washington State comes in at No. 43 and the Wildcats are close behind at No. 47. Playing No. 9 Texas Tech and No. 26 Gonzaga helped UA in that regard.
In the final year of Pac-12 soccer, the conference is not quite as difficult as in some years past. While that presents opportunities for wins, it could also mean lower RPIs and fewer rewards for beating conference opponents.
The team currently sits around .500 heading into the conference season. Moros thinks they need to finish above .500 in conference play to get into the tournament this year.
They should be able to get one foot in front of that in the opening weekend. The Wildcats host the Oregon Ducks, who have yet to win a match this season.
The Ducks sit at 0-6-2. Their best result is a tie against Missouri State, which is No. 125 in the RPI. The other draw came against Boise State, which sits at No. 140. They have losses against No. 158 Denver, No. 169 California Baptist, and No. 196 Northern Arizona. All of the losses except the NAU game came in Eugene.
That doesn’t mean that Oregon doesn’t present some challenges for Arizona. Moros characterized their style as a more direct style of play. That’s the kind of play that gave the Wildcats difficulty early in the season.
“I think if you’re two fairly evenly matched teams, playing against a direct team as a possession team can be fairly disorienting,” Moros said. “It’s hard to get a rhythm and usually direct teams are a little more comfortable when there isn’t a rhythm. But there’s also opportunity to sort of control the game a little more because perhaps their midfield isn’t as integral in the way they’re building the ball from one end of the field to the other. So, it can go in different directions. Work rate and your competitive mentality and how much you attack the game is probably going to shift the momentum to one team or the other and then you have one of those styles become more dominant. If you’re a truly top-tier possession team, you’re gonna probably not be as fazed by a direct team because you’ll have the ball a lot.”
Arizona also needs to get back to what it had been improving on—staying strong in the back line. Moros felt that they regressed there against Gonzaga in last week’s 3-1 loss.
What she has also seen improving over the course of the season is the ability of the offense to work together. Players are creating more for their teammates and not just for themselves. Part of that is just getting more time together since soccer has such a short preseason preparation time. Part of it is about players developing.
Arizona did not get its first assist until Aug. 31 against Kent State. It has at least one assist in four of the last five matches.
One of the players who is developing more in that area is sophomore forward Cameron Valladares. Valladares is second on the team with three goals scored but she’s also one of five players on the team who has an assist. Moros wants to see an improvement in “her impact on the overall performance of the team,” including team defense.
“We want to see her producing not just for herself, but also for others,” Moros said. “She’s dangerous on her own. So that means she opens a window to be an assist maker, as well. And we’re playing with a three front right now...In order to put three forwards on the field, your strikers do a lot of defensive work, as well.”
As for how she can get better at helping her teammates, Valladares thinks it’s about the rapport they develop both on and off the field, then adapting their games to suit each other.
“It’s just things you practice like while we’re training, but also developing relationships with specific girls,” Valladares said. “I love setting Nicki up for stuff. She’s been doing super good and scoring a bunch...So, looking for each other in practice and seeing what runs Nicki will make. I’ll make a different one.”
The Wildcats need to put that work into action over the next seven weeks if they want to reach their goals. One is to get to the tournament. It’s not the only one, though.
“[We’re] obviously excited to go to the Big 12 next year, but really making the most out of our last season against these teams,” said freshman defender Marissa Arnst.
Oregon Ducks (0-6-2) @ Arizona Wildcats (3-2-3)
When: Friday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. MST
Where: Mulcahy Soccer Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Arizona
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
RPI/Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the United Soccer Coaches top 25. Arizona is No. 47 in the RPI. Oregon is No. 213.