Arizona soccer: Wildcats return home to face NIU, San Francisco in Arizona Cats Classic

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Alex McIntyre | The Daily Wildcat

Arizona midfielder Cali Crisler (3) stares down the ball as she outpaces Denver forward Leah Swander (14) against the Pioneers at the Sun Devil Classic at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium in Tempe on Sept. 2. The Wildcats won the matchup 3-0.

The Arizona women's soccer team is playing its best soccer of the season and now has five of its next six games at home, starting with a pair of games against Northern Illinois and San Francisco this weekend in the annual Arizona Cats Classic in Tucson.

The Wildcats have had a road-heavy schedule so far this season but now, with a 3-1-1 record and a favorable home schedule coming up, have a chance to turn their current two-game winning streak into an extensive one.

“It’s massive,” said Arizona head coach Tony Amato of the opportunity ahead. “This beginning part of the season, we felt like we were on the road a lot. Even though last week was only in Tempe, we were still staying in hotels and on and off buses and eating in restaurants. To be at home, that will help the preparation a lot.”

Despite the bus rides and hotel stays, Tempe was a friendly environment for the Wildcats. They strung together two dominant wins against Denver and Columbia in the Sun Devil Desert Classic.

Arizona outshot opponents 44-6 and outscored them 5-0.

“We were combining really well,” said UA midfielder Cali Crisler, who scored her third goal of the season during the trip. “We finally figured out how to play with each other and we finally got in a groove of connecting with the midfielders and the forwards and getting it back and moving off the ball.”

Crisler has already tripled her scoring output from a season ago, and Amato says the key for her improvement is that she’s settled on a role, not to mention that she’s healthy.

Crisler missed eight games with a hamstring injury in 2015.

“There’s not enough time to talk about the leaps and bounds Cali’s come,” Amato said. “I’m very strength-oriented and I probably didn’t find her strengths quick enough. And now that we have, we’ve been utilizing those and she’s feeding off that.”

Meanwhile, Gabi Stoian has had a different type of season for the Wildcats. The midfielder has led Arizona in scoring the past two seasons, but was goalless until the trip to Tempe.

There, she tallied her first goal of the season in a 3-0 win against Denver, and scoring-troubles aside, Amato says she has been sharp this season.

“Even if she doesn’t turn up on the goal sheet, she has been really effective in setting things up for us, and being dynamic, and helping the team be successful,” he said. “We feel really good about where she’s at and we think there’s a lot more that can happen for her this year.”

Arizona also received a boost from sophomore goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, who returned to the starting lineup this past week.

Burdett missed the first three games of the season because of mononucleosis, and posted two shutouts in her first two appearances of the season in Tempe.

RELATED: Burdett returns from illness, records two shutouts in Sun Devil Desert Classic

Burdett and the Wildcats look to carry that momentum into the weekend.

Their first opponent, Northern Illinois (1-2-1), has struggled offensively this season, scoring just two goals and taking only 18 shots in its first four games.

San Francisco (2-4) is led by senior midfielder Amanda Whittle, who has four goals this season and was an All-West Coast Conference honorable mention the past two seasons. However, the Dons have dropped four games in a row.

“We know what we have to do,” Amato said of his team’s game plan this weekend. “We looked at their set pieces, we looked at their style of play, we looked at their formations, and I think [our team] is in a good place.”

The Wildcats are 8-3-1 in their last 11 home games, including a 5-1 win over Utah Valley on Aug. 21 — Arizona’s only home game of the 2016 season so far.

“Our season ticket holder group has been growing and growing and growing, the student support has been great,” Amato said. “We have a really great thing going with the soccer community here and then just people that support the U of A in general. And the team has gotten good results over the few years. You put all of that together and it’s been a good crowd. It’s been good turnouts, it helps the vibe and the players feed off that.”

The Wildcats, ranked No. 20 to start the season, received eight votes in this week’s NSCAA Coaches Poll, placing them as the No. 35 team in the country.

Friday’s home match against Northern Illinois is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., and Sunday’s game versus San Francisco is set for 1:30 p.m.


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