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The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona soccer notebook: Wildcats gain identity, Park solidifies backline

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Alex McIntyre
Arizona midfielder Kennedy Kieneker (12) beats Oklahoma to a header against Oklahoma at Murphey Field at Mulcahy Soccer Stadium on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Kieneker scored the Wildcats only goal against the Sooners, who won the matchup 2-1 for Arizona’s first home loss of the season.

Wildcats gain an identity

The Arizona soccer team allowed six goals in its first three games, but has posted four straight shutouts since, improving its record to 5-1-1 on the year.

A lot has changed since the team’s 3-1 season-opening loss to Pepperdine and UA head coach Tony Amato believes it’s the result of the Wildcats gaining an identity as a team.

“Last year I felt like three practices in we had a really good, clear sense of who we were, our identity, and we had certain people in certain roles,” Amato said. “This year it took us probably three or four games to really hone in on that, but we have a much better picture now. Roles are becoming clearer, newer players are becoming more understanding of what we need them to do and we have a better identity. It took a little time to figure out what this team’s strengths were and now we’re moving forward to that.”

The defense, especially, has found its calling card, which is to ‘take pride in not giving up goals.’

“Sometimes you can get caught up in ‘get your backs forward and combine’ and ‘get balls in the box’ but we just asked them to take some pride in not giving up goals first, and then we’ll go from there,” Amato said. “And they’ve done a good job of that.”

Indeed, the defense has become a ‘wall’ — as senior defender Laura Pimienta put it — limiting opponents to just five shots on goal (with none of them getting past goalkeeper Lainey Burdett) in the last four matches.

“People in front of us can mess up and make mistakes but we’re trying be that wall that stops everything and cleans everything up,” Pimienta said.

The team’s stellar defensive play has allowed the Wildcats to grind out wins even when they’re not at peak performance offensively, such as this past weekend when they grinded out shutout victories over Northern Illinois and San Francisco.

The Wildcats only scored three goals in the two games, but it was more than enough.

“Tony really instills in us to have our own identity,” said UA defender Hannah Stevens. “My club team wanted to play like Barcelona, but I think [Amato] wants us to focus a lot on grinding and playing hard…not necessarily making it the prettiest soccer. He just wants us to grind it out and win.”

And it’s pretty simple how to make that happen.

“If they don’t score, we win,” said UA defender Brandi Park.

Park solidifies backline

Speaking of Park, the junior college transfer from Pima Community College has been an integral part of Arizona’s defense.

Due to injuries, Arizona has continually had to shuffle its backline, but the Tucson native has been a constant throughout it all.

Park played in every game in two seasons at Pima, and has continued the trend for the Wildcats, starting in all seven of Arizona’s games, while providing the team with much-needed stability.

“She’s been a great pickup, and she’s going to be a player for us,” Amato said.

The transition from junior college to the Pac-12 Conference can often be rocky due to the talent discrepancy, but Park, citing her success at PCC, knew she would contribute at Arizona right away.

Amato can’t necessarily say the same.

“It’s like any player, we were hoping [she could contribute right away],” Amato said. “We weren’t sure because the [junior college] level there are some good players, but you don’t know how that translates all the time to playing in the Pac-12 and now we know she’s going to do a good job for us.”

With freshman defender Samantha Falasco currently sidelined with an injury, Park has overtaken the centerback role for the Wildcats, and can usually be spotted making a key slide tackle or an important clearance to prevent a scoring threat.

“She’s come in and been very strong,” said Pimienta. “She’s been cleaning up everything, she’s stepped up in that centerback role and she’s been very solid.”

However, as vital as Park is to Arizona’s defense, Amato wishes there was one thing different about her — her eligibility.

Because Park spent two seasons at PCC, she only has two seasons of eligibility at Arizona.

“She’s going to get better, better and better,” Amato said. “She’s doing a great job, and I’m glad we added her, but I promise you she’ll be a player that leaves in two seasons — at the end of next season — and we’ll go ‘she was so good, we wish we had her for longer.’”

Park and the Wildcats will go for their fifth straight win on Friday when they’ll host Oklahoma at Mulcahy Stadium.

RELATED: Preview — Arizona soccer set to host Oklahoma to wrap up non-conference schedule

Game time is scheduled for 7 p.m and the match will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter.


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