The Vanderbilt soccer team was in action Saturday evening in Columbia, Missouri at 5 PM. I have no idea why anyone scheduled this game to conflict with football on Saturday. The SEC is allowing each team to only play one game per weekend, so there is no reason to have a game on Saturday. It is completely idiotic and ruins any chance to grow interest in the sport. Even for someone who loves soccer and Vanderbilt, it was hard to focus on this with Ole Miss at Kentucky, Virginia Tech at Duke, and Jacksonville State at Florida State (yes, this game was worth watching until late 3rd quarter) happening at the same time.
Head Coach Darren Ambrose has made 3 changes to the lineup, and two of the three are surprising. Haley Hopkins, Madison Elwell, and Blue Ellis make way for Olivia Simmons, Amber Nguyen, and Alex Kerr. Elwell and Hopkins are missing their first starts since 2018 and 2017, respectively. For Hopkins, it is related to a hamstring issue, but no reason was given directly for Elwell. Simmons or Kerr in for Ellis could purely be trying to find the right pairing up front. The formation stays as the same 3-5-2.
Missouri is going to use a 3-4-3. Outside of the 4-4-2, the 3-4-3 is about the most amorphous formation a coach can use. It is shown as a flat 4 in midfield with the wingers up top in traditional wide places. The variations and tactical tweaks can be anything from a diamond midfield (1 attacking, 1 holding, and 2 wide) to having the wingers up front tuck in more centrally while the wide midfielders overlap to basically playing a 5-2-3 with the wide midfielders playing more defensively.
The early parts of the match are what you would expect with two packed midfields. The numbers make it hard to play balls along the ground through the lines, so there is quite a bit of trying to lob the ball in to forwards or trying to play up the wings. One Missouri ball over the top is ahead of the striker Julissa Cisneros. Unfortunately, sophomore goalkeeper Sophie Guilmette is hesitant. The delay allows Cisneros to get to the ball first and leads to Guilmette having to attempt a desperate tackle that ends in a foul outside the box. The referee decides to only caution (aka give a yellow card) the guilty goalkeeper when a sending off (red card) would have been hard to argue. A replay shows that Cisneros’s first touch had led her a bit wide of goal and probably to a very tight angle of the goal, but there was no covering defender to stop her.
Missouri’s free quick whips wide of the near post, but they keep attacking down Vanderbilt’s right side and earn 2 more free kicks in the following minutes. The third time is the Tiger’s charm as freshman attacker Alex Kerr loses her marking assignment, Grace Kitts, who heads the ball into the back of the net. The set piece defending has been poor in general this season. The losses of goalkeepers Lauren Demarchi and Taiana Tolleson along with defender Nia Dorsey are showing up in painful ways.
Coach Ambrose has seen enough and gets Haley Hopkins up warming up to prepare to enter the game. By the time she is on the touchline waiting for a stoppage, Vanderbilt has taken a grip on the game. A few attacking moves are rebuffed with the most dangerous coming from the wide right side. A cross is whipped across the box, but no Commodore made the aggressive run to get on the end of it. It came all the way through to Elwell, whose second attempt cross was defended away.
Hopkins is finally introduced. Immediately, Missouri has two defenders drawn to her. The extra space gives Raietparvar and Mya Swinton room to play down the right side as Hopkins cuts inside. Unfortunately, Raietparvar’s through ball to Swinton is a bit behind and outside her target, and the attack dies with a clearance.
Ellis has two opportunities in the last two minutes of the half. The first is a chance to cross where she hesitates while eyeing up which of 3 teammates to target in the box. She dallies too long and is closed down, resulting in a weak cross to the near post that is easily cleared for a corner. Off the corner kick, she finds herself in a similar place, but not quite as far from the end line, to her goal against Kentucky. This left-footed shot is sent maddeningly over the crossbar.
At halftime, the commentator points out that Missouri has led the last 3 meetings 1-0 at some point and lost all 3. It was a nice thought, but that streak would unfortunately end. It certainly was not for lack of chances though. The halftime stats show that each team has 4 shots with 2 on goal while Vanderbilt has the only 2 corner kicks.
The second half was even harder to focus on since the football game started just as the second half kicked off. As it was, Hopkins would have a golden opportunity ten minutes into the period, but the header slides juuust outside the post. The Missouri goalkeeper was full stretch and might have had it covered. Or, after a replay, maybe not.
Missouri would double their lead a few moments later when a corner, their first of the game I believe, is played on the ground and deflects out to the top of the box where Cassidy Numberger is waiting to finesse a side-footed shot off the far post and into the net.
The Commodores immediately give themselves hope by scoring 1:44 later. They earn a free kick at the top right of Missouri’s box. That patch of grass is a popular spot for fouls in this game. It is where Missouri scored their first from at the end of a trio of free kicks from locations within about a 5 yard by 10-yard space. Amber Nguyen sends it in surprisingly low that Haley Hopkins appears to flick on (though the box score does not reflect her touch) for Madi Allen to slot home with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot in shock at the ball finding its way to the Vanderbilt attacker.
Hopkins almost creates another goal when she leaps for a corner kick and heads it back across gal to Raegan Kelly. Kelly slides the shot just wide going across the keeper. Just like so many chances in these first three games, it just feels a touch off. I have no football equivalence, but it is like when a great shooter goes cold in basketball. The stroke just looks different. The balance is wrong, and the release looks almost uncomfortable. That is the entire Vanderbilt soccer team. It is probably the effect of losing those anchor pieces like Grace Jackson in midfield along with the aforementioned Dorsey and Demarchi/Tolleson.
The rest of the half has a few interesting moments, but Missouri is clearly hanging on for dear life. The Tigers do have 6 shot attempts in the half, but only one is on frame. It is a very easy save for Guilmette. However, Vanderbilt nearly levels the game in the dying moments as Abi Brighton turned a Shamburger free kick from midfield off the corner of the upright and crossbar. The keeper had no chance, but it rattles the woodwork then deflects away harmlessly.
The Vanderbilt Commodores have dropped their second match in a row. It is not an ideal first third of the SEC-only schedule. The difference is that Vanderbilt was demolished in possession according to the box score. Maybe my attention was too split, but it did not feel nearly as bad as it looks below. Darren Ambrose has a lot of work to do to find a way to unlock the potential of this team. On one hand, it is much better to have a team that is just a bit off than one completely lost. Any coach will tell you that playing well but not getting results is the most vexing situation to face. You know tweaks are necessary, but the fear is always to take too big of a swing at the adjustments and pull apart what is going well.
Thankfully, the next game is not on Saturday. Sunday at noon, the Commodores take on the South Carolina Lady Penises in what will hopefully be a chance for a football sweep of South Cackalacky. That game will be on ESPNU.