Friday, 6:00 PM
Texas (10-7-4; 5th – Big XII; WTSR – 1.07, 3rd – Big XII)
Rice (14-3-3; 2nd – C-USA; WTSR – N/A)
You’re Excited About This One, Aren’t You?
Yes, I am!
The odds of mid-majors prevailing in the first round don’t seem to be improving as the years go on, the likes of Western Michigan last year being the rare exception. But Rice have a good chance of being this year’s Cinderella. They’re in form having won seven in a row to get to this point and having drawn with Dayton and Arkansas and beaten SEC foes LSU and Vanderbilt, showing they aren’t about to be overwhelmed by big conference athleticism.
That’s Nice, Have They Beat Any Big Clubs?
That’s the problem. Rice hasn’t beaten any big clubs, because they haven’t really had the chance. They haven’t played an RPI Top 50 team this season, though that might be more about some underachieving non-conference foes than anything else. All three of Rice’s losses were by a single goal. Oh, and they’ve conceded one goal in their last six, after a bit of a torrid midseason stretch.
So They’re A Defensive Club?
No, not quite. Granted, the Owls only gave up thirteen goals on the season and seven in ten league games, so they can defend, with the likes of Jenny Fichera and Ashton Geisendorff solid defenders to back up a talented keeper in Amy Czyz. But Rice’s attack was the unit doing damage in C-USA play. They netted nearly three goals a game and battered North Texas in the conference tournament final.
Tell Me More About This Rice Offense.
Rice tries to shove a steady diet of Lauren Hughes and Holly Hargreaves down opponents’ throats every time out. Both are 5’10″ and useful in the air as you might expect, with the former proving to be an absolute nightmare to stop down the stretch. Before being shutout in the C-USA Tournament final, Hughes scored in seven straight matches and finished with fourteen goals to go along with Hargreaves’ ten. Add in unheralded midfield gem Quinny Truong, and you’ve got an experienced, productive offense that seems to be firing on all cylinders right now.
OK, Bring Me Back To Earth.
Texas isn’t a bad team. More importantly, they’re battle tested. They’ve been in the wars with UCLA, UCF, and a steady diet of quality Big XII opposition. Against a side that hasn’t faced an RPI Top 50 team all year, the Horns’ big game experience could be the turning point of this one.
Do You Fancy Texas’ Defense To Stop The Rice Offense?
It’s the key matchup, obviously. The Horns are blessed in having a pair of seniors at center-back in Julie Arnold and Brooke Gilbert. At 5’8″ and 5’6″, the duo probably aren’t going to be bowled over in the air by Rice’s big forward duo, but neither of the Horns’ center-backs are superstars either. The UT defense was middle of the road in the Big XII in goals allowed and shipped multiple goals to many of the better sides they’ve faced this season. Having junior goalkeeper Abby Smith is a nice last line of defense, though she’s unproven in the postseason and can still be caught cheating off her line at times.
The Defense Isn’t The Problem Though, Is It?
No, Texas’ attack, again, is underwhelming under Angela Kelly. The Horns scored just seven goals in eight league games and are still searching for the bellcow up front that can score fifteen goals a season. The leading scorer is rookie Olivia Brook, but she has just six goals on the season and is used primarily as a super sub for UT. The leading scorer in the league was midfielder Lindsey Meyer, but she only had two goals that weren’t from the penalty spot. The club’s two leading shot takers, Sharis Lachappelle and Julia Dyche have teamed up to take ninety-five shots this season…netting just four goals between them. Making matters worse, UT put a pathetic 36% of their shots on target in the league this year.
That Doesn’t Sound Promising.
No, it doesn’t, and it’d be easy to write off Texas entirely if not for the fact that they did just come from a Big XII Tournament where they battled both Texas Tech and West Virginia to standstills that had to be decided on penalties. The Horns may not be particularly aesthetically pleasing, but they deserve a lot of credit for being able to grind results out when they’ve needed them down the stretch.
So, Anything Else?
The coaching matchup will be one to watch. As Chris Petrucelli can attest to, just making the NCAA Tournament isn’t enough in Austin. Nobody’s going to confuse this Texas team with one that can make a run into the College Cup, but there will still likely be grousing if the club loses at home to what has to be seen as an inferior opponent. UT still has but a single postseason win under Kelly, and the absence of star power and offensive fireworks has to be causing some annoyance in Austin. Make no mistake about it, the pressure is all on the side in burnt orange on Friday night.
On the other touchline, Rice’s Nicky Adams has gained back all of the coaching capital she lost after last season’s inconsistent and disappointing campaign. The Owls proved they were C-USA’s best team by a fair margin with a comfortable and convincing win in the tournament final this year and will be hoping to take full advantage of their current golden generation of senior players. Adams was tipped as a rising star after working wonders early in her career as the boss of the Owls, and a win here may have some wondering how long the C-USA side can keep ahold of their boss when bigger clubs come calling.
So You’re Going With The Upset?
Yeah. It wasn’t particularly difficult to read between the lines given some of Rice’s comments after the selection show. The Owls couldn’t have been less subtle had they stood up and screamed “Stop Ducking Us!” at the Horns. Rice has clearly been waiting for this one for a long time and has the talent to pounce on an opponent there for the taking. It probably won’t be pleasing to the eye for the neutral, but I’m tipping the Owls to grind out an ugly but ultimately satisfying win over their more ballyhooed neighbors.