Arizona soccer: Wildcats open up Pac-12 play at No. 10 USC
Non-conference play has come to an end for the Arizona soccer team and now the always difficult Pac-12 Conference schedule is upon them.
Four teams in the conference are ranked in the Top 25, while two others — including Arizona — received votes in the latest NSCAA Coaches' Poll.
“It’s not easy, it’s really just a great challenge," said Arizona head coach Tony Amato about the upcoming schedule. "I think just the biggest thing — if you don’t know anything about the Pac-12 and women’s soccer — that people don’t always realize is a lot of the teams are good, a lot of the teams are ranked from top to bottom, and it’s very difficult, but it’s also very different environments to play in.
"You could play in the desert here one day, you can play in Southern California in the nice breeze there, and then you can play in the altitude of Colorado, the rain of Seattle. So you’re not just navigating good teams and really good players, you’re navigating all different environments.”
The Wildcats' first environment? Breezy Southern California.
Arizona (5-2-1) travels to Los Angeles for a Friday afternoon match against the 10th-ranked USC Trojans, who sport a 6-2 record.
“They’re good so we’re going to have to be up for the challenge, up to the fight, (Arizona goalkeeper) Lainey [Burdett] is going to have to make some saves, and we’re going to have to capitalize on the chances that come our way,” Amato said.
USC has won six straight games, including wins against No. 20 Pepperdine, No. 21 Auburn, and No. 8 North Carolina, and has won the last two match-ups against Arizona.
“They’re always a tough team," said UA midfielder Jaden DeGracie-Bailey. "They’re very physical and in the past years we’ve had a battle. I wouldn’t say it’s a specific one person...but they always come out swinging, if you could say that for soccer.”
The Trojans are led by Alex Anthony and Morgan Andrews, who lead their team in points. Anthony has five goals and two assists, while Andrews has three goals and an assist.
“If they get multiple chances and the ball falls to them in dangerous areas, they’re very capable players of scoring," Amato said. "So you have to limit their chances, and hope Lainey makes a save, hope they miss one wide, hope one hits the post, and then you capitalize on your chances.”
That is, if Arizona can create enough chances.
USC boasts one of the conference's best defenses, as it has allowed just four goals this season, putting it in a tie for the Pac-12 lead. The Trojans haven't allowed a goal in the last 564 minutes of play, and have posted shutouts in all six games of their winning streak.
That being said, USC's field has a quirk to it that could actually help the Wildcats out in that regard.
“Their field’s a little smaller than some other fields — a little tight quarters — so they’re a good team on a tight field and that causes some problems," Amato said. "[But] we’re good on set pieces and the flip-throw doesn’t have to go as far and you can put balls in the box and be a little dangerous on it so hopefully that can help us.”
Because of the Pac-12 scheduling, both USC and Arizona only have one game this weekend instead of the usual two.
“We take it game-by-game so here, instead of the quick turnaround Sunday, it’s just like ‘this is the game this weekend’ and so we can literally give everything we have,” DeGracie-Bailey said.
And like any Pac-12 contest, it's expected to be a close, hard-fought game, with one or two plays deciding the outcome.
"Soccer is a cruel game and it comes down to one goal and... especially now in the Pac-12 with how competitive it is," DeGracie-Bailey said."I keep saying the word competitive over and over again because that’s exactly what it is. We just have have to limit our errors in the back and also capitalize on our chances up front.”
Kickoff at McAlister Field in Los Angeles is scheduled for 3 p.m. and the game will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
The Trojans are 9-0-2 in their last 11 games at home, while the Wildcats are 4-4-2 on the road since last season, including a 3-1 loss to USC in 2015.
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