ASU soccer begins with optimism, but low expectations

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                </div>  A new era in women’s soccer at Arizona State is unfolding.  Optimism is high among the faithful, but the Pac-12 coaches don’t share those expectations. The Sun Devils were […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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A new era in women’s soccer at Arizona State is unfolding.  Optimism is high among the faithful, but the Pac-12 coaches don’t share those expectations.

The Sun Devils were slotted to finish in 11th place in the preseason coaches’ poll.

That announcement at the beginning of this month isn’t the kind of news that befits the arrival of the man who is expected to provide the kind of amazing turnaround he accomplished at his last stop.

Graham Winkworth, who was hired last December, spent four years building the University of South Alabama program into a national contender, taking a mid-major program that had posted just one season above .500 in the previous five years to three straight conference titles and four conference tournament titles.

But it’s obvious the challenge is going to be a little steeper at ASU, where his predecessor, Kevin Boyd, managed just four NCAA Tournament appearances in his 10 years directing the program.  Last year’s squad wrapped up a 6-11-2 season by losing its final seven games.

In hiring Graham, the administration made it clear that his mission was to develop a program that would be a part of the national conversation on a consistent basis.  With that in mind, it would appear there’s a very wide chasm between where they are now and where they need to be in a very short time.

The Devils lost a couple of keys to their offense and defensive game with the graduation of attacking midfielder Lucy Lara and experienced defender McKenzie Grossman, but will still have the services of senior Jazmarie Mader, who will go down as one of the top goal scorers in program history.  The 5’7″ forward from Basha High School in Chandler needs eight more goals to move her into a tie for 10th place among all-time goal scorers.

But Winkworth has brought some of his own firepower from South Alabama.  Junior Jemma Purfield will be in the fold this season following the last two at South Alabama where her 11 goals last season led the Jaguars and earned her Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year honors.  Her presence on the field should also give the defense a boost; she was also named the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

Purfield shares a common bond with her head coach.  She is from Beverly, England, and Winkworth began his coaching career in England.

Another foreign import who may play a significant role this season is incoming freshman Lara Barbieri.  The Sao Paolo native is an accomplished midfielder who represented Brazil on the 15U and 17U national teams.

The Sun Devils won both of their pre-season exhibition games, beating Cal State Northridge, 1-0, and the Beijing All Star team, 4-0.  And then they split the first two regular-season games on their schedule, both games going into overtime.  The Devils lost to Ohio State, 1-2, and beat San Diego State, 2-1.

It was a couple of local prep grads who accounted for two of the three ASU goals.  Freshman forward Olive Jones, from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, took a corner kick from Purfield and used a header for the only score against Ohio State.  In the SDSU game, Natalie Stephens, a junior forward from Boulder Creek High School in Anthem, scored the first goal off a pass from Christina Edwards and senior forward Jessica Raybe punched through the game-winner in OT.

So it’s hard to tell at this point whether this year’s squad is going to be able to compete at the level that will be required to overcome the discouraging pre-season expectations and begin the climb to national prominence that Winkworth was charged with when taking the job.

The Devils have about three weeks to put their game together before a very difficult stretch of Pac-12 games against the powerful California schools.  They will go on the road Sept. 28 against California and Stanford, but will enjoy the advantage of taking on UCLA and defending national champion USC at home the following week.

However, it’s going to take more than home-field advantage to get past the Bruins and the Trojans.  This isn’t the Sun Belt Conference, after all.

But, just maybe, Winkworth’s rebuilding project will be up to the task by that time.  A win or two during that stretch would go a long way toward restoring confidence.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)