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ASU soccer starts 2021 season undefeated using underdog mindset

The Sun Devils defeated Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana University to begin the 2021 season

210822 ASU vs. Southeastern Louisiana Soccer-7.jpg

ASU graduate student defender Jayda Hylton-Pelaia (10) fights for control of the ball during a game against Southeastern Louisiana University at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. ASU won 2-1.

ASU soccer set high standards for itself after finishing the 2020 season with a 9-6-2 record and earning its first postseason berth since 2014.

That season was filled with comebacks and thrillers, and the Sun Devils are on a similar path to start 2021. ASU overcame deficits to win its first two games of the season Thursday and Sunday.

After falling behind 1-0 early against Central Arkansas, ASU stormed back with six unanswered goals to win. ASU then defeated Southeastern Louisiana University 2-1 after going down 1-0 at the beginning of the second half. 

After having multiple chances throughout the second half, the team showed its resilience after it tied the game with only 12 minutes left against the Lions. ASU eventually secured the win in the 89th minute with a goal by senior forward Olivia Nguyen.

"We've come from behind now in the past two games so that is something that we need to fix, but on the flip side it shows the character we have to respond on both occasions and particularly tonight (Sunday)," head coach Graham Winkworth said. 

The Sun Devils come into this season with the same "underdog" mentality that drove them to success during the 2020 season. 

"I think last season we had the mentality of the underdogs and that really took us through a lot being ranked last in the Pac-12," Nguyen said. "We had something to prove and I don't think this year is any different, I think we are still going to carry that underdog mentality."

The Sun Devils' win against the Lions did not come easily, as Winkworth noted players could have been seen "almost having a bit of conflict with each other" on the sideline. During some moments Sunday night, senior midfielder Eva van Deursen picked up her team and encouraged them to carry on the team motto of "keep believing and keep fighting."

"But (players may have conflict) because they trust each other and they can; they hold each other accountable and to high standards," Winkworth said. 

ASU soccer has been practicing new ways to attack a defense when their normal strategies of playing through the middle are not working, including utilizing Nguyen and senior forward Cori Sullivan

The duo would often stay after practices to run through the exact play that broke through Southeastern Louisiana University's defense to win the game. The chemistry between the players has carried from last season to this season, with offseason conditioning and training shown heavily in their opening games. 

The team started to make tactical adjustments around the 60th minute, switching formations to allow their outside defenders to assist in keeping the ball wide, Winkworth said. 

Despite the pressure of being down a goal, the Sun Devils quickly shifted to the new tactics and techniques they had been practicing throughout the week. 

"When you are down 1-0, it’s very tempting to just start shooting from anywhere and that’s not what you want to do," Winkworth said. "You want to continue to find good areas and I think we will continue to do that."

Despite their nearly perfect start, the Sun Devils are currently struggling with injuries among their team.

Senior midfielder Alexia Delgado was carried off the field due to an injury on Sunday night. According to Winkworth, the extent of her injury is still being determined, and her recovery will likely be a long one. 

Even with the injuries, the team will continue to push forward and build on its fast start to the season.

"They are incredible to hangout with, I enjoy coming to work, they are fantastic people, they are great footballers but they are great people as well," Winkworth said. "They enjoy being around each other, they work hard for each other and our culture is very strong."

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