Improved team culture played large role in success of ASU women’s soccer | #students | #parents

When COVID struck, the team took the time to work on team culture, helping lead to a successful season on the pitch

After going just 6-11-3 in 2019, including an 0-9-2 mark in Pac-12 play, ASU women’s soccer has completed one of their best regular seasons in recent history thanks in part to a complete team effort to build on team culture and chemistry last summer.

Prior to their season opener on Feb. 4, the Sun Devils had not played since Nov. 8, 2019, a span of 454 days without a competitive game.

During the break, while practices and workouts were sparse, the Sun Devils were still able to become closer as a team.

“One of those areas (that we worked to improve) was our team culture and our leadership and our communication … They respect one another and they care for one another, and those two words are very, very important to our program,” head coach Graham Winkworth said.

Winkworth added that, while the team couldn’t physically be together, they could still use the time to improve in those areas off the field.

“When you can’t improve in one way you’ve got to try and find a way of moving forward in other ways,” Winkworth said.

The improvement paid off for the players as well, who felt the team chemistry benefitted from the summer meetings.

“The more I understand these girls’ backgrounds and who they are as a person, the more I can trust them on and off the field and how everything is related to each other,” said junior midfielder Olivia Nguyen.

Nguyen added that last summer “built our foundation” for the success the team is enjoying now in the spring.

Junior defender and forward Cori Sullivan noted the “mental growth” the team went through during that time.

“Maybe COVID was a blessing in a sense because we did take time to stop and regroup and we grew a lot mentally … Now we have a lot of trust and we hold each other accountable,” Sullivan said.

Winkworth said in 2019, players weren’t holding each other accountable at a level that was needed to progress as a team.

He said everyone on the team was so nice, it was as if they didn’t want to hurt each other’s feelings by calling one another out on the field.

“Yet, if you really care about somebody, you need to tell them when they’re not doing well enough because it helps make them better,” Winkworth said.

To help guide the team in the right direction, he turned to a book that he had heard about from Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian.

As a group, the team read through “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and discussed what they learned from each chapter over Zoom.

Junior forward Nicole Douglas said it was a great way for the entire team to stay connected, even with players returning home all over the world.

“Ultimately what we learned was the foundation of a successful team is trust … we’ve put that into place into this team,” Douglas said.

The change has been noticeable on the pitch, as the Sun Devils just completed an 8-5-2 season after going winless in conference play the season before.

ASU dominated out-of-conference play to begin the season, going 4-0-0 and outscoring opponents 14-3 in those games.

Conference play began and after a win against USC, the team ran into its first bit of adversity of the season.

In a four-game stretch that included two ties and the team’s first loss, the Sun Devils were only able to score three goals.

While many teams would look to change things up for a spark, Winkworth had faith and confidence in his team to find a breakthrough. 

He said the players continued to work hard on what the coaches were trying to instill, even after a tough stretch of games. 

That belief and work ethic cultivated in a 2-1 overtime road upset victory over No. 3 ranked UCLA. 

According to Winkworth, wins like those help the players buy into what the program is building toward.

“It was just a big win for the program,” Winkworth said. “We’ve tried to instill a level of belief where the girls know that things are possible, and now they’re seeing that they are possible, it only feeds into that level of belief.”

Now, the Sun Devils have qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

They will take on Siena (6-0-2) on Wednesday, April 28, at 9 a.m. Arizona time in Greenville, North Carolina.

For Winkworth and the team, it’s just another milestone in a year where they are grateful to be playing at all.

“It’s been one lemon after another, but we keep making lemonade,” Winkworth said.

Reach the reporter at and follow @dmwilhelm225 on Twitter.

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