Long-suffering Arizona State soccer fans are waking up to the fact that their team may have finally turned the corner to becoming a legitimate national contender.
The first indication came at the end of February when the Sun Devils, unranked at the time, knocked off then-No. 10 USC in the opening match of the 20-21 season.
And four days ago, ASU stunned No. 3 UCLA at the Bruins’ Wallis Annenburg Stadium. The 2-1 victory in overtime marks the first time in 21 years that ASU has beaten its conference nemesis, and only the second time in program history.
And it should give the Devils a big boost in the national rankings. Earlier this season, ASU earned its highest ranking in 17 years when the United Soccer Coaches (USC) Poll ranked the team No. 16 in week seven — the highest ranking since 2004 when that team reached No. 9 in the USC poll.
Shortly after, however, ASU (7-1-2) suffered its only blemish of the season, an 0-1 loss to rival University of Arizona. That dropped the Devils down to No. 21 as they entered the UCLA game. That will change once again after the OT thriller in Los Angeles as ASU should begin the climb back up.
The Sun Devils found themselves in an early 1-0 hole against the Bruins until the final minute of regulation, when junior midfielder Olivia Nguyen scored the goal that would send them into overtime. And junior forward Cori Sullivan took care of the win by taking a cross from Nicole Douglas and poking it into the back of the net with just two minutes remaining in the overtime period.
Nguyen, who starred at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, has risen like a Phoenix this year. For the first two seasons in a Sun Devil uniform she failed to score a single goal. And then she got her first collegiate goal in the season opener, and now finds herself in fourth place in the Pac-12, with 11 goals.
This season appears to be a validation for Graham Winkworth, who was a highly- successful head coach at South Alabama before taking over the ASU program in December of 2016. He was charged with the task of rebuilding a sagging program that had posted two losing seasons over the final three years of Kevin Boyd’s tenure as head coach. Boyd led the program for 10 years, but took his teams to just four NCAA Tournament appearances.
The ASU program appeared to be on the upswing when Winkworth posted a 10-7-1 record in 2018. But fans were disappointed once again when the 2019 squad started the season with five straight wins, only the second time that has happened in program history, and then were able to collect just a single win the rest of the way to finish 6-11-3.
Things improved in 2020 when that team went 7-1-2 and undefeated in conference play before the last part of the season was cancelled because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. The potential of that team was never realized.
But the Sun Devils are taking this season one game at a time. Their next challenge comes Friday when they host California, followed by Stanford on Sunday.
Winkworth refers to his player’s performance now as a “family effort.”
“They believe,” he says, “and as long as they continue to believe, the sky’s the limit.”
(Photo: ASU Athletics)