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Soccer’s new system might be key to a tournament run

Photo courtesy Diego Palos Rodriguez

By Diego Palos Rodriguez     9/27/22 11:42pm

Although Rice soccer is coming off three straight wins to start conference play, their struggles early in the season are notable enough to cast doubts. While the Owls went up against and lost to some of the best teams in the NCAA, such as No. 8 Florida State University and No. 23 Southern Methodist University, they also struggled against much weaker opponents such as Samford University and Loyola University Maryland. Formation changes and familiarity with the system seem to be having a positive impact on the quality of play at the start of conference play, but will it be enough to guide them past the Conference-USA and toward the NCAA Tournament glory seen less than two years ago?

After starting the season 2-5, the Owls were matched up against the defending national champions FSU. Head coach Brian Lee featured a new 3-2-4-1 formation that emphasizes rotation throughout the field to overload both the offense and the defense while accommodating for gaps left on the opposite side of the field. Lee was also encouraging the central attacking midfielders to put pressure on the opposing center-backs, inciting either defensive mistakes or clearances where the Owls could win back possession and quickly counter. 

The squad has stuck with this formation and found success against conference opponents, winning their first three conference games by a combined score of nine to two. The Owls showed improvement over those games as well, creating only three against the University of Texas at San Antonio, but bringing their production up to 17 shots in their most recent game against Louisiana Tech University. The issue with this formation, however, is that it was exploited by an FSU side that scored five goals against a Rice team that struggled to maintain possession. The Owls’ defensive midfielders, key components to this specific formation, were picked apart by FSU attackers, creating enough gaps to outnumber the three Owls defenders. The current system may lead the Owls to a solid conference record, but it’s hard to see how it’ll fare up against faster and more aggressive opponents. 

Lee professed at the beginning of the season that the newcomers, both transfers and freshmen, would play a huge role in the success of the team, and a quick look at the minutes played in each game confirms his statement. Graduate transfers Grace Collins and Madi Allen and freshmen Kallie McKinney, Jules Johnston, Jessica Molina and Carsyn Martz have all been featured and played prominently in nearly every game. Collins, forward and right midfielder in the current formation, has had impressive performances throughout the season, setting the Rice and C-USA record for most assists in a game and currently has the seventh-most assists in the NCAA this year. Martz, a center-back, has also turned in solid performances while spearheading a back line of three that features two former attacking players on either side of her. Along with a strong set of returning players, the team has the skill necessary to compete against the strongest sides in the nation, but only time will tell if their current system can be perfected enough to generate results. 

Two seasons ago, the Owls began an unprecedented run that saw them at the heart of the NCAA tournament. An upset win against No. 5 West Virginia University carried the squad to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament, just three games away from championship glory. An important part of that season was being tested and overcoming high-performing teams before the NCAA tournament. If the team wants to replicate that success this season, those types of games must be taken advantage of, especially taking the new system into account. Despite dropping games against SMU and FSU, there are still opportunities left to showcase where the trajectory of the season might go. Facing Texas A&M University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham on the road and hosting the University of North Texas will all be tough games for the Owls and crucial for the team’s development and confidence. Under Lee, the Owls have shown in flashes that they can compete with the best teams in the nation. But only time and experience in their new system will tell if this year will bring back that NCAA success or another year of unfulfilled potential. 

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