Expectations high as ASU soccer returns all of its starters

Arizona State‘s soccer coach, Graham Winkworth, has a problem this season that any coach would welcome.

The fifth-year head coach has his entire starting lineup from last season back again for the 2021 campaign.

But that’s a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, it gives the Sun Devils their best chance since the native of New England was hired in December of 2016 to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

But having that much talent on hand also creates additional pressure for a coach trying to prove he can rebuild a sagging program that had made just four NCAA appearances during the 10 years that Kevin Boyd ran the program, but unable to get any consistency so far.  This is his best team yet, but he’s got to show he can make good on the opportunity.

Winkworth’s first squad, in 2017, won just five games.  But the next season, hopes were lifted when that team posted a 10-7-1 record.  However, that was followed by a disappointing 2019 campaign that ended with a 6-11-3 record — and no conference wins.

Last year’s season was moved from the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, due to the pandemic, but the Sun Devils pulled a winning season out of the frustration of a six-month delay.  The season ended with a 9-6-2 record and included upsets over nationally-ranked teams, No. 10 USC and No. 3 UCLA.  The Devils beat the Trojans in the season opener and then later in the schedule took the Bruins into overtime for a 2-1 victory.

The upset of UCLA marked the first time in 21 years that ASU had beaten its conference nemesis, and only the second time in program history.  Optimism for the future was riding high.

Those wins showed they could compete at a high level and helped propel them into the postseason, where they reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 — and came very close to a Sweet 16 berth.

But, despite those shocking upsets over conference foes, collecting wins in the Pac-12 Conference has been the real challenge for Winkworth.  His teams have averaged fewer than three conference wins a season, and never better than the five wins in 2018.

The Sun Devils are off to a flying start this season following a 6-1 home win over Central Arkansas Thursday night.  The visitors took a 1-0 lead, but ASU responded quickly when  Nicole Douglas set up a goal for Olivia Nguyen less than a minute later, and the Devils rolled on from there.

The pair developed an efficient working relationship last season when Douglas started all 17 games and Nguyen, a local from Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, played in all 17 and started all but one.

Nguyen (in photo above) and Douglas are seniors who have already announced plans to take advantage of the NCAA’s offer of an additional season, due to the disruption by the pandemic.  Both are forwards and will be joined on the field by returning senior midfielders, Alexia Delgado and Eva Van Deursen.  Douglas scored two goals against the Sugar Bears, and Nguyen and Delgado each contributed a goal.

Douglas added three assists to her day’s work against Central Arkansas, which ties the second-highest single-game point total (seven) in program history.  An import from London, where she was one of the premier players in England, she led ASU last season in scoring with eight goals and 18 points.

The win over Central Arkansas extends the Devils’ unbeaten streak in non-conference, regular-season games to seven, a string that began in 2019.  Tonight, they will try to keep the streak alive when they host Southeastern Louisiana.

Despite the fact that Southeastern Louisiana is the defending champion of the Southland Conference and preseason favorite, tonight’s contest shouldn’t be much of a test for a Power 5 team like the Devils.  The Lady Lions lost their opener, 3-0, to Grand Canyon University, which plays in the WAC.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)