The LSU soccer team didn’t leave any doubt as to which was the superior team when Northwestern State came to Baton Rouge on Friday night.
After finding the net just twice on 20 shots in the season opener against Troy on Aug. 22, the Tigers had a much more efficient attack against the Lady Demons, erupting for six goals on only 16 attempts.
However, the Tigers’ 6-2 dismantling of Northwestern was quickly forgotten when they hosted Rice on Sunday.
Injuries took a heavy toll as the short-handed LSU squad (2-1) failed to match the higher level of competition and stumbled to a 1-0 loss to the Owls (2-1-1) for its first defeat of the season.
“The level of opponent went up [on Sunday], and we weren’t overly ready for it,” said LSU coach Brian Lee. “[Rice] was more athletic than the teams we’ve played, and we were a step slow.”
The Tigers will have another chance to get up to speed when they conclude their season-opening, four-game home stand against Nicholls State (2-2) at 7 p.m. tonight at the LSU Soccer Stadium.
For Lee, Tuesday’s match against Nicholls will be an opportunity for LSU to recapture the offensive continuity it displayed through the season’s first two matches.
The Tigers had little trouble creating scoring opportunities for one another against Troy and Northwestern as nine different players assisted on eight goals.
But LSU struggled to find the same chances when it faced Rice’s stifling defense. The Tigers had a season-low 11 shots against the Owls’ back line, and only one came on goal.
Junior midfielder Natalia Gomez-Junco, who recorded two goals and an assist in the Tigers’ first two contests, said the loss to Rice helped the squad realize the mentality it must have when facing tougher opponents.
“It was definitely a higher level of competition, but it’s good because it prepares us for future hard games,” Gomez-Junco said. “The [Southeastern Conference] isn’t easy, so it’s a good lesson for us. We have to take the positives, move on and correct our mistakes.”
The Tigers will likely again be without senior Alex Arlitt on the back line when they host Nicholls tonight.
Arlitt, who doubles as a midfielder and defender, suffered an apparent left ankle injury against Northwestern that forced her to sit out against Rice.
Arlitt’s injury forced Lee to delve deep into his youthful roster against the Owls, and there were times when three true freshmen were guarding the Tigers’ back line. But Lee said Arlitt’s composure and leadership on a young back line was what the team missed most.
“We missed Arlitt probably more than anything,
attacking down the wings on the outside,” Lee said. “She’s our one senior and one of our big leaders. [Her absence] didn’t help against Rice because we didn’t have as many people to lean on.”
Arlitt wasn’t the only player on the Tigers’ back line to leave with an injury this weekend. Sophomore All-SEC defender Megan Lee, who made her 2014 debut on Sunday, went down late in the first half against Rice and didn’t return.
Despite the untimely injuries to key players, the young LSU defenders still limited the potent Owls’ attack to 10 shots with four on goal. Before facing the Tigers, Rice had compiled 53 shots with 22 on target through three games.
The back line’s performance impressed sophomore midfielder Emma Fletcher, and she’s confident it can handle the injuries that have gutted its rotation against Nicholls.
“We still have a lot of strong players on the back line, and they all did well filling the void,” Fletcher said. “They’ll keep getting better and more confident as we continue the season.”
You can reach David Gray on Twitter @dgray_TDR.