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Joe Rice ready to put USL Championship on notice
“I mean after that injury, a lot of people can write you off but I’m on a good track."
Joe Rice has experienced the highs and lows that come with being a professional soccer player. The goalkeeper was on the precipice of signing an MLS contract after an impressive 2021 season with New England Revolution II but then in stoppage time of the final game of the season, Rice suffered an injury that changed the course of his career.
Two years later, Rice has signed with Hartford Athletic of the USL Championship and he is ready to show everyone that nothing has changed regarding his playing ability.
“I think it’s truly just reminding the league who I am and what I’m capable of,” Rice said when asked about his goals for 2023.
Rice burst onto the scene after joining New England Revolution II’s inaugural squad. The goalkeeper made 29 appearances over two seasons for Revolution II in League One. In his debut season with the second team, he even won USL League One’s Save of the Year Award
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It seemed like Rice was knocking on the door of the first team but after breaking his arm in the final clash of the 2021 USL League One campaign things changed.
“If it was up to me, obviously I would have loved to stay but they decided not to (re-sign me),” the 26-year-old said. “That’s football.”
Still, Rice looks back on his time with Revolution II fondly. He credits the club and its coaches for where he is as a player today.
“I give all credit to where I’m at today to the Revolution organization,” Rice said. “The coaching, I got to give a big shout-out to [Revs II goalkeeper coach] Yuta [Nomura]. I was coming in as a trialist, my competition was a draft pick (Keegan Meyer), and [Nomura] kind of just brought me under his wing, kept my head down, helped me and the other goalkeepers along the way and kind of cleaned me up as a goalkeeper and just paved the way for the career I had at the Revs and continuing that further on down the road. I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and the whole organization for making me the pro I am.”
Nomura and Rice still talk today and have a great relationship according to the former Revs II star.
Rice had proven that he was a top goalkeeper with Revolution II and Major League Soccer clubs noticed. He told The Blazing Musket that in the months following his injury he received preseason invites from MLS clubs that he had to turn down due to his injury and not being able to recover in time.
“The first three months, I just thought about myself and what I wanted in my career and the time that it’s going to take me to get back to where I was,” Rice said. “I had my quote-unquote pity party and then I really just woke up and I just told myself ‘listen, if I had that year in 2021, it’s still in me and the only thing I really need is my confidence to get back to where it was’ and I am certainly on that route.”
After leaving the Revolution organization, Rice signed for Loudoun United. As evident by being loaned out to Detroit City FC, the goalkeeper didn’t have a pleasant stint with the Virginia club where he only appeared in five games.
“It was pretty much night and day,” Rice said of his time in Loudoun compared to Revs II. “It was very, very, very, very different. It was just way more connected and way more professional with the Revs. Better training, facilities, pretty much everything that’s put into being a professional and a professional team was pretty much better. Loudon, unfortunately, it’s not the best situation.”
Rice offers a unique perspective having played with clubs that are affiliated to MLS sides and also standalone clubs. He believes that standalone clubs offer an intensity that can be difficult to cultivate with academy kids gaining experience with MLS second teams.
“I’m not saying that MLS two sides aren’t serious for practice,” Rice said. “I’m just saying there's a difference between practicing with academy kids who are 16, 17, and 18 and they get to go home to their parents every day compared to a little bit older and mature guys who are fighting for contracts every single day.”
After a difficult 2022 season, Rice has a new home with Hartford Athletic. Led by the legendary Tab Ramos, the club is preparing for what is bound to be an exciting 2023 USL Championship campaign.
Ramos had a successful career as a player making 271 appearances across his senior career. He was named CONCACAF Player of the Year in 1994 and was one of the first players to be signed by MLS. Ramos spent the majority of his career with the Metrostars where he made 121 appearances. On the international stage, Ramos played in 81 games for the United States and scored eight goals. In 1990, the midfielder was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year.
After his playing career was over, Ramos stepped away from the game for some time before eventually becoming a coach. Starting in 2009, Ramos worked his way up the U.S. Soccer ranks. He began as an assistant coach on the U-20 squad and was promoted to head coach in 2011. While being head coach of the U-20’s, Ramos also served as an assistant with the men’s national team from 2014 to 2016. More recently, Ramos was head coach of the Houston Dynamo before joining Hartford in August of 2022.
Rice believes that this is a massive year for himself as a player and that Hartford is the perfect place for him to improve as a player. Especially with Ramos as his head coach.
“I think with the guys that Tab [Ramos] brought in, you can see that something’s building here,” Rice said. “Playing under Tab, playing under Dan Gasper, and also playing well can definitely lead to furthering my career exponentially whether that be in the USL Championship or whether that be in MLS. I think with the right mentality and the right work ethic, I think there’s nothing but success to be had here.”
Rice has been impressed so far with Ramos calling him one of the most intelligent coaches that he has had in his career.
“Everything is his style,” the goalkeeper said of Ramos. “He knows what he wants out of us and he knows what he wants out of the team. So having that as a coach and having that command and direction, I think it’s really helpful for us as players to put it all together on the field. It’s been very much enjoyable getting to learn under him. I think I picked the right spot because each year we are trying to learn more about ourselves as a player and we are trying to grow and I truly think Tab, Dan, and Omid [Namazi] are the correct people to do that for me.”
The goalkeeper is grateful for the opportunity in Hartford and hopes he can show that he is the same goalkeeper that he was prior to his injury.
“I mean after that injury, a lot of people can write you off but I’m on a good track,” Rice said. “I have a good mindset and I’m just truly excited to kind of show the league that I’m still the same goalkeeper that I am.”
Hartford had a mediocre season in 2022. The club finished 10th in the Eastern Conference and failed to make the playoffs.
Still, Rice has high hopes for his club’s performance as well. The goalkeeper believes that something special is happening within the club and the rest of the league better pay attention.
“I think playoffs, that’s the first goal, and then kind of just showing the league that Harford, stuff has changed up here in New England. The league should be ready because we have a special group.”
Whether you are a soccer player or not, life is all about getting back up when you are knocked down. Rice has bounced back from his injury and is ready to show that he is still a dominant goalkeeper.