Tony Amato leads new era for Florida Gators soccer

Alan Festo
Gator Sports
Florida Gators forward Kit Loferski (6) blocks out Alabama Crimson Tide midfielder Felicia Knox (18) during a game in Gainesville on Oct. 4, 2020. Loferski is expected to play a major role for the Gators in 2021. "Kit has been dangerous in attack," new head coach Tony Amato said. [FILE]

After a dismal pandemic-split season in 2020-21, the Florida women’s soccer team is ready for a fresh start. It’ll get that and more this year with the addition of new head coach Tony Amato.

Amato, 43, took over for Florida in May as only the second head coach in program history, after eight seasons at Arizona and previous stops at Stephen F. Austin and Division II Rollins College.

He replaces longtime coach Becky Burleigh, who announced in January that she would be stepping down at the end of the season after guiding Florida for 26 years. Burleigh led the Gators to 14 SEC titles, 22 NCAA Tournament appearances and the 1998 national championship.

Those days, however, feel long gone.

The Gators finished last season 1-6-1 in conference play and 6-8-3 overall — their lowest win total in program history. Florida finished 13th among the 14 SEC schools and missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. The Gators had made the previous 15 tournaments before missing out in 2018.

Enter coach Amato, who has shown a propensity for quickly turning programs around.

Replacing a legend:Florida names Tony Amato as soccer coach

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After missing out on eight consecutive years of postseason play, Amato led the Arizona Wildcats to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2014-2019. He enjoyed similar success during his three years at Stephen F. Austin.

“I think the biggest thing is getting players that embrace winning soccer games and being serious soccer players and serious student-athletes,” Amato said about his previous coaching success. “When you do that and you give them a game plan on how to be successful and play to their strengths … give them a clear role, a clear identity, a clear picture of what that expectation is and then they compete at a high level, they work hard and have a good attitude. When all that comes together, you’re able to win soccer games.”

Up next

What: Florida at No. 20 South Florida

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Corbett Soccer Stadium, Tampa

Streaming: ESPN+

Note: Gators are 6-1-2 all-time against the Bulls

If Amato and the Gators are to have success in his first year, they’ll have to do so without some key players from last season, including leading goal scorer Beata Olsson.

Olson transferred to Florida State after notching seven goals as a freshman and finishing second on the team with 14 points.

Also gone are senior midfielder Parker Roberts — a second-team All-SEC selection — and senior goalie Susi Espinoza. Roberts led the Gators in points (15) last season and was second on the team in goals (5) and assists (5). Espinoza started all but one match for the Gators last season in goal and recoded three shutouts over the final six games.

The Gators do, however, return plenty of talent led by graduate students Kit Loferski, Madison Alexander, junior Syd Kennedy and redshirt sophomore Nicole Vernis.

“I could honestly probably go on and on. It feels like that core group that just comes to mind right away has really tried to make sure we’re training at a high level and getting better every day.” Amato said. “That’s all you can really ask for.”

New Florida soccer coach Tony Amato

Alexander, the only player to start every match last season, finished the year with seven assists. She scored the winning goal for the Gators on a penalty kick in last week’s exhibition match again Southern Mississippi — a game in which the Gators trailed 1-0 at the half.

“We were impressed how we competed, how we came back and didn’t just feel sorry for ourselves at halftime that we were down a goal and found a way to win the game,” Amato said of the 2-1 win.

The Gators also return junior Laney Steed, who dished out five assists a season ago, and sophomore Maddy Rhodes, who notched three goals.

Amato would not speculate on a possible win total for his first Florida team — picked to finish 10th in the SEC — saying that you can only expect to see a better team as the season progresses. That journey beings Thursday night as the Gators travel to Tampa to take on No. 20 South Florida.

“I think you’ll see a team from an expectation standpoint every single game that brings a high intensity, a level of competition, a work rate, a positive attitude and positive energy every single time we step on field,” Amato said.