The Arizona soccer team grabbed dinner at BJ’s last weekend as they watched UA women’s basketball in the Final Four. Both squads seem to have at least one thing in common: they are playing/played their best when it matters most.
Winners of three of their last four, UA soccer (8-4, 3-4) swept Stanford and Cal last weekend for the first time ever to move into seventh in the Pac-12. Only a few weeks ago they were staring at a 1-3 start in conference play and, to some at least, a long shot to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Now a bid appears within reach so long as they keep playing well in their final three games.
“I think it would be really rewarding for the entire team,” senior forward Jill Aguilera said. “We’ve worked so hard and although it was a little rough in the beginning of Pac-12, people were like, ‘Oh, are we even going to make the tournament?’ Do we have a chance?’ … I think we were able to pick ourselves up and say, ‘hey we’re not going to give up because it’s way too early for anybody to give up.’ We’re just going to keep playing and we’re starting to win games and we’re playing better and better.”’
Seniors like Aguilera, Jada Talley and Hannah Clifford have led the charge. That trio combined for all three goals and all four assists in the Bay Area sweep. They have never missed the NCAA Tournament in their Arizona careers and aren’t ready to do it now.
“I think we should be stepping up,” Talley said. “That’s what seniors do.”
Arizona only averaged 7.8 shots in their first four Pac-12 matches but have nearly doubled that total to 15.2 over their last four despite the schedule stiffening.
Talley and Aguilera credited the team’s young backline for coming together too. The Wildcats have allowed one goal or less in six straight games.
“We’ve gotten into a rhythm with our offense and then our defense is settling down with each other, and they’re kind of getting into a rhythm as well,” Talley said. “I think that’s huge because everyone’s new, basically. There’s two starting people in the backline that have not really had minutes or they’re freshmen. So being able to mesh well is huge and I think we’re just a couple games in now, so it’s just looking better. We’ve gotten more practice on it.”
Part of the reason Arizona struggled at the beginning of Pac-12 play is several of their key players, including their three senior forwards, were limited in practice because of injuries. Now they are training at full speed and it’s translating to the games.
“That definitely helps a lot with the overall intensity, to help our teammates out and get ready for the games, as well as for us being able to connect together and see the different pockets of space that we can work in,” Aguilera said.
Aguilera made TopDrawerSoccer’s National Team of the Week and the Wildcats check in at No. 23 in their latest Top 25 poll.
Aguilera is happy they are receiving some national recognition—”I feel like we’re a team that never really gets a whole lot,” she said—but they know they can’t get complacent. Every game is a grind. Six of their eight Pac-12 games have been decided by one goal.
“Now we’re on a little bit of a high, but (head coach) Tony (Amato) is always saying you can’t get too low and you can’t get too high because that’s where teams can come in and make it worse for you,” Aguilera said.
Besides, they know not to overlook this week’s opponents. Colorado and Utah are both in the bottom half of the Pac-12 but have been troublesome for the Wildcats over the years.
Arizona is 0-3-3 in their last six games against Colorado and 2-1-1 in their last four against Utah. The Wildcats and Utes played to a scoreless draw in Salt Lake City last season while the Buffaloes escaped Tucson with an overtime win.
Playing them in the altitude in a short Friday-Sunday turnaround makes it all the more difficult. Arizona’s depth will be tested, just as it was against the Bay Area schools when temperatures reached the 90s in Tucson.
“I think it’s just being dialed in to the details,” Aguilera said. “That’s something that’s really important to us for Colorado, specifically. They work really hard on set pieces just like we do. In the Pac 12 we’re like the two teams that work on them the most, and I think that it could be a battle of set pieces. We got to make sure that we’re creating chances in the run of play as well.”
In a normal year, Arizona would already be in terrific shape for a postseason bid. The NCAA Tournament being condensed from 64 teams to 48 changes everything.
Arizona enters the week 24th in RPI, and while that is a great mark, that metric isn’t expected to be weighed as heavily by the selection committee this year because the non-conference season was shortened due to the pandemic.
How you fare in your conference might be what’s most important. The Pac-12 usually puts six to nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. Only four or five will make it this season. At best.
A pair of wins this weekend could vault the Wildcats into that coveted range. A pair of losses could drop them as low as 10th heading into the regular-season finale at ASU.
“It’ll come if we deserve it, and I think we do, so as long as you work hard and win out this weekend, we should be okay,” Talley said. “It’s always cool to go to the tournament. If this is our year to go far, let’s do it.”
Talley and Aguilera keeping an eye on the NWSL
The NWSL Challenge Cup begins Friday and Aguilera and Talley said they are planning to tune in. Talley didn’t used to watch NWSL games unless her friends were playing in them, but she’s following the league closely now that she’s part of Racing Louisville FC.
“A couple years ago I didn’t want to go pro, so I really didn’t care for it,” she said.
Talley and Aguilera, who was claimed by the Chicago Red Stars, have been in regular communication with their respective clubs since they were acquired by them in January.
Aguilera said the Red Stars want to bring her in for training this summer so that she can build some rapport with her new club and future teammates.
“Which is really cool, a little nerve wracking,” she said.
Aguilera has a team-high seven goals and four assists this season, showing why the Red Stars are so high on her. She’s even doing things that maybe they didn’t expect—like score with her head against Oregon State and her right foot against Stanford.
“Even Chicago joked with me about it, they asked if my right foot is just for me to stabilize my left,” Aguilera laughed. “And I said ‘no, I can use my right foot!’ So that was cool to be able to score with my right foot. I mean, I’m capable of doing that but obviously my left foot is more dangerous, but I’m not afraid to use my right foot at all and be able to use my head. That’s something that I’ve been working on throughout quarantine over the last year.”
A fifth-year senior, Aguilera is planning to return to Arizona for the fall season so she can continue honing her game before entering the professional ranks. Talley, who has five goals and five assists, once said that was her plan too, but she’s still on the fence.
“It’s a whole bunch of wait-and-see,” she said. “I can’t predict the future. We’re waiting for summer is what it is.”
- Friday: Arizona at Colorado, 1 p.m. PT
- Sunday: Arizona at Utah, 12 p.m. PT, Utah Live Stream 2