- November 23, 2021
"There's not enough scoring in soccer, it's boring."
We've all heard this excuse for why some Americans don't love the game, right? Set aside that scoring isn't the be-all, end-all of sports entertainment for a second and understand that the narrative is simply not true. Well, maybe in the Premier League it is, but there are plenty of leagues where scoring happens in bunches, including my personal favorite, the Bundesliga, Germany's high-octane soccer league that just this past weekend had games end 6-0 and 7-1 and had four other teams score three goals. I even attended a Tampa Bay Rowdies playoff game a few weeks ago that ended in utter chaos, as the Rowdies scored twice in the final minutes to tie Louisville City before winning in overtime.
In fact, scoring in a sport like football is mainly an illusion, anyway. A 28-21 football game is exciting, right? Well, what does that really mean other than one team scored four times and one team scored three times? Is that so different from a 3-2 soccer game as to merit this conversation around how boring the game is? No, of course not. Some people just refuse to give the sport a chance, so they fall back on reasoning that never held water in the first place. What I'm trying to say is, soccer can be a whole lot of fun and feature plenty of scoring.
That is, unless the 2021 Riverview High boys soccer team is involved. The Rams do score, but their opponents likely will not.
Riverview is 8-0-2 on the season. You can count the number of goals the Rams have allowed on one hard. And, you know what, you can go ahead and put four of those fingers down. The Rams have allowed one — one! — goal through 10 games, and that goal came on a penalty kick Nov. 8 against Manatee High. If you're only counting goals during play, the goals the defense is responsible for, the Rams defenders and goaltenders have kept an entirely clean sheet.
It's an astounding feat and people are taking notice. As of Dec. 8, MaxPreps ranks the team 25th nationally and 14th in Florida (fourth in Class 7A). It would be impressive no matter the level of competition the Rams are facing, but a Dec. 2 game against Lakewood Ranch High — ranked 18th nationally and ninth in Florida (second in Class 7A) — proved that the Rams are not paper tigers. The Mustangs entered the game averaging 4.4 goals a game. Riverview shut them down. Now, the Rams weren't able to score on them, either, and had to settle for a 0-0 tie, but still: the defense withstood the stress test, so to speak. That is a quite positive sign for the team's prospects.
"Our communication is really good right now," junior fullback Jack Bates said. "We all work well together. I've played with our right back Mateo (Rizzo, junior) for a long time. I've played with our center back Davi (Stefenoni, senior) for a long time. We all know how the others play. We work hard for each other and we understand as a team that defense comes first for us. Our job is to make sure we're never conceding (goals). It's simple. It all comes down to that."
In case anyone reading this is thinking, "OK, THAT much defense can't be fun to watch, can it?" I respectfully disagree. The Rams play defense with precision. They attack loose balls with lightning speed and have the ball cleared down the field, or on the foot of a teammate going for goal, nearly as fast. It's impressive in the same way watching a well-oiled machine is impressive: in its never-wavering efficiency.
Bates said the team's streak of stingy play is not taboo to talk about during practice. The team can and does acknowledge how dominant it has been defensively. In fact, they take a moment after every match to celebrate another job well done. If that pesky penalty kick can stand as the only goal the Rams give up this season, then they'll be satisfied. They're ready to knock away every ball that enters their zone until that day comes.
Rams c Coach Ed Stroop had a feeling this team had a chance to be special. The Rams went 17-5 in 2020 and reached the regional quarterfinals last season before losing 4-1 to Plant High (the state's eventual runner-up). It was a solid group that found its footing after a few early-season stumbles. It also had a lot of returnees who, with another year of experience, have now taken things to a new level.
"Sometimes a team just gels," Stroop said. "They have a good culture. They're following the structure we have in place, they're being coachable and they're good technical players."
Stroop said the focus on defense was intentional from the start as that's where the team had the most experience. Now that the season has approximately reached its midpoint, the team is beginning to work on its offense. After all, it's difficult to win if you don't get at least a few goals yourself. Against Cardinal Mooney High on Dec. 8, the Rams saw those offensive plans executed. Riverview beat the Cougars 7-0.
Another tough test awaits the Rams defense on Friday when the team hosts Venice High at 7 p.m. Venice is 4-0-2 and no pushover. Remember how I said Gulf Coast High won the Class 7A state title last year? The Indians tied them 1-1 to begin the season. They're capable of high-level play and the Rams will have to be on their A-game to make sure their defensive run stays alive.
If I had to guess, I'd say it will, likely for a while. Stroop said every year he has his team read a book on leadership to instill those qualities in his players. This year the team is reading "The Magic of Thinking Big" by David J. Schwartz. I know it's had an influence because, after watching them play and talking to them, I'm confident the Rams believe they can achieve everything they want.
It's difficult to argue with them when they produce results like this.