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Lack of leadership, defensive errors see soccer lose this weekend

Courtesy Rice Athletics Sophomore midfielder Naija Bruckner attempts a pass against the Houston Cougars. The Owls went on to lose that game 2-1 and lost their next game against Loyola University Maryland, dropping to 2-4.

By Diego Palos Rodriguez     9/5/23 11:54pm

Rice soccer lost both their games last weekend to the University of Houston and Loyola University Maryland, dropping to 2-4 to start the season. Despite winning two games in a row last week, tallying a combined seven goals, Rice scored just one and conceded four in their most recent bouts. 

One of the team’s biggest hurdles so far this season has been the loss of so many players from last season. According to head coach Brian Lee, while there is still quality in the team, the roster turnover has left some holes on the pitch which have not been filled.

“[The transition has] been [okay],” Lee said. “The biggest thing probably missing is leadership. [For example, former goalkeeper] Bella [Killgore] was such a communicator. [Junior goalkeeper] Ann Steph [Fortin] has played great in goal to be honest, she’s made a bunch of blinding saves and has been very good one [versus] one, but we miss that leadership component right now.”

Rice debuted at home this season with a “Bayou Cup” match against UH. Lee stuck to a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation hybrid that debuted after the first couple of games this season. The formation sees two wingbacks — junior Natalie Gorji on the right and sophomore Kallie McKinney on the left — playing in both defensive and offensive roles, filling in for centerbacks on their respective side when the ball is on the opposite side of the field. 

The formation proved effective last week and made its own impact against the Cougars. Seventeen minutes into the first half, Gorji’s high press against the UH defense led to an interception for the Owls deep in UH territory. Graduate transfer forward Ellen Halseth quickly got the ball and dribbled past the defense, eventually beating the keeper and giving the Owls the early lead as well as her third straight game with a goal.

“It’s always fun to score and get a lead going into the game,” Halseth said. “Getting the first goal is huge in a game like this, it sets the standard and brings energy to the team.”

Rice was able to take the momentum and controlled play for most of the first half, but some defensive breakdowns late in the half eventually led to a Cougar goal, tying up the game with four minutes left. According to Lee, the team has struggled with deflecting shots away from goal, which has cost them in games like this.

“We have to step out and block shots around the top of the box,” Lee said. “Take out the Texas game, almost every goal against us has been the same thing over and over. Until we fix it, it’s going to be tough to win games.”

 Just four minutes into the second half, the Owls conceded their second goal after allowing a long defensive run, giving the Cougars the lead. Despite late chances, Rice was not able to find the goal, marking their first home loss against UH since 2001.

On Sunday, the Owls flew to Baltimore for a match against Loyola University Maryland. Rice had a few early chances that even saw Halseth almost convert from the top of the box, but was denied by the crossbar, leaving the score 0-0 at the end of the first half.

The Greyhounds controlled the second half almost as soon as it began. A little over a minute into the half, Loyola converted from a rebound off a corner kick, giving them the lead that they maintained for the rest of the game. With only five minutes left in the half, they put one in from another set piece, this time a cross off a long free kick. Fortin came off her line to punch out the cross, but was unable to beat the Greyhound scorer, who headed the ball over Fortin and into the goal, sealing the game for Loyola.     

In light of these losses, junior midfielder Mikala Furuto, playing as a centerback, explained that there are still defensive errors that are impacting the team thus far in the preseason that must be fixed.

“I think one of the biggest things [we’re working on] is just blocking shots,” Furuto said. “[Against UH], we had two goals where we could have flown a little faster into the box to try to block those so I think that’s the main thing we need to work on.”

The Owls stay on the road next Thursday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. to face Sam Houston State University, which will be streamed on ESPN+. They return home Sunday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. to play Texas A&M University.

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