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Rice Soccer is losing its identity

By Diego Palos Rodriguez     9/19/23 11:41pm

In their most recent match against No. 17 Xavier, ESPN displayed a graphic detailing the “Keys to the Game” that each team needed to follow to put themselves in the best position. What did they say for Rice?

“Keep it 0-0 for the first 10 [minutes].”

Rice made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament, upset nationally-ranked opponents and broke into the top-25 themselves in 2021. While the graphic exaggerates the state that the Owls find themselves in, it is telling of the type of results the Owls have had this season and emphasizing the sheer amount of goals that they are conceding. 

In 10 games, the Owls have scored 15 goals and conceded 31, winning only two games and accumulating zero clean sheets in the process. They lead the American Athletic Conference in goals allowed by 12 and also boast the worst record in the conference. While the team struggles to put up goals on the board, these defensive failures are halting any progress that the offense produces.

One aspect to look at is head coach Brian Lee’s defensive tactics heading into these games. The team came out with three centerbacks early in the season with two wingbacks on both sides playing up and down the field, filling in for gaps and rotations made throughout the game. While it took a few games for the team to adjust to this formation, the help that the wingbacks provided on defense made an impact on the results, notably in the wins against Northwestern State University and Sam Houston State University. 

But in the losses that the Owls had in this period, it was the wingbacks’ inability to get back on defense in time, leading to the three centerbacks becoming overloaded and giving up short goals. Against Texas A&M University, for example, the wingbacks were placed in a more offensive role, leaving the back-three vulnerable and conceding four goals. 

In the very next game against Southern Methodist University, Lee switched to a backline of four. While it was a respectable risk to a more defensive-minded tactic, it may have been too much, too soon as the team conceded six goals in the first half alone against the Mustangs and four in the next game against No. 17 Xavier. 

Many of these defensive breakdowns are not a result of individual performances, but a lack of communication within the team. 

Starting from behind, the goalkeepers have not been confident enough to direct players and control the pace of the game. They have also repeatedly demonstrated an inability to play from the back with too many goal kicks, punts and clearances going either too short or out of bounds. 

As far as defenders, players such as junior Catarina Albuquerque and sophomore Carsyn Martz have combined experience and skill to put up good tackles and interceptions, but it’s been in vain as gaps left on the wings tend to overload one side, leaving the other side open to opposing attackers.

With all this said, the midfield and offense are not free of fault. Freshman Jordyn Mariam, sophomores Kallie McKinney and Naija Bruckner and graduate transfer Ellen Halseth have performed well, but there are missing pieces that have stopped the Owls from consistently progressing up the field and taking better shots. 

Given the loss of some key players from last season — namely goalkeeper Bella Killgore, midfielder Delaney Schultz and forward Grace Collins — it’s not a complete surprise that the Owls have struggled. In fact, the Owls struggled last year as well, going 2-6 in the preseason before embarking on an undefeated conference run. However, all but one of those losses came from very close games that saw Rice motivated and evenly matched with their opponents. The results and goals conceded this season are uncharacteristic for a Rice soccer team that has only recently seen the highs of collegiate soccer. 

It’s not just a lack of quality or tactical familiarity, but a lack of confidence. The Owls are not showing the same flair and communication that fans have grown used to. Rice still has time to turn the season around like they did last season, but unless the team regains its identity as a winning program with some of the world’s top collegiate talents, they might have to start looking at next season for any sort of success.

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