Joe Dodson, Contributing Writer
After four years of playing together at Sports Backers stadium, two former VCU men’s soccer players now walk by Super Bowl banners on their way out of the locker room.
“Being where Tom Brady played, that is quite special,” Joe Rice said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to walking into that big stadium.”
Rice and Ryo Shimazaki have made their way to the professional ranks, now playing for USL League One’s New England Revolution II.
This is the second season of the new USL League One, and the first for Revolution II. The team serves as a place for younger players to develop their game in hopes of being called up to the MLS parent club, the New England Revolution.
After spending the last five years playing in Richmond as a goalkeeper for VCU and the Richmond Kickers, Rice was ready for a change in scenery.
“Everything’s new,” Rice said, “and you get to prove yourself again.”
Jumping on the opportunity, Rice started the first three games of the season. Rice was named to the USL League One team of the week, awarded to a player in each position, after recording a five-save shutout against Union Omaha in Revolution II’s inaugural season opener.
Although Rice and Shimazaki haven’t broken into the first team squad, they have had the unique opportunity to play their home matches at Gillette Stadium. They share the nearly 70,000-seat stadium with the New England Revolution and the NFL’s New England Patriots.
The role for 24-year-old Rice has changed tremendously since his last season with the Richmond Kickers. As the team’s backup, he made three appearances including two starts. This year, during the goalkeeper’s first professional season, Rice is setting a new objective for himself.
“I would like to be a goalkeeper that has a chance to share his name with the rest of the league,” Rice said. “I want guys to come up against me and know who is in net, and know that I am a goalkeeper who it’ll be hard for them to beat.”
Players for New England Revolution II were two weeks from their season opener when the league decided to postpone the season due to COVID-19. The league was set to begin on March 27, but the first game was not played until July 19.
Rice said the team did everything they could to keep players in shape through individual workouts and Zoom calls.
During the spring COVID-19 shutdowns, Shimazaki went back to his home country of Japan and focused on family and soccer. He stayed in shape by training at his former academy, Kawasaki Frontale.
“Even though they had less cases, I tried to stay home as much as possible,” Shimazaki said.
Rice has seen a difference in play between his time in college and his professional career, citing his new teammates’ confidence in their roles on the pitch. Rice said professional players can make the right decisions, quickly, on the ball.
“Everybody on the field is a pro for a reason,” Rice said. “Everybody’s dangerous, so you always have to stay on your toes.”
Rice’s time at the Richmond Kickers made him the only player on the squad to have prior experience in USL League One. Despite being young himself, Rice has embraced a veteran role for the young team.
“A bunch of the guys, it’s their first season playing pro,” Rice said. “I know I only have one year under my belt, but I like to see it as one more year than these guys.”
Rice only had six appearances for the Rams in his collegiate career, but he said he gained a lot from his time at VCU. He said the takeaways from his years on campus were not things he was taught, but things he experienced.
“As you walk around the campus and eat in the dining halls, you’re around different people of different backgrounds. You work with them in the classroom,” Rice said. “I think that correlates directly to the locker room.”
Shimazaki called being a professional a privilege, and he said it means leaving a legacy for the next group of players to follow.
“People watch and you can show them your ability,” Shimazaki said. “You can give them hopes and dreams.”
The former Rams will be returning to Richmond to play the Richmond Kickers at River City Stadium on Oct 3.