The Vanderbilt Commodores open their 2021 soccer season at 7PM CT tonight against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles. The match at the Vanderbilt Soccer/Lacrosse Complex will be streamed on SECN+, which should be free with your cable/satellite subscription. Attendance is, as for all soccer matches, free.
Vanderbilt recently announced a series of promotions to encourage fans to come out to matches. Tonight, the first 250 fans will get free ice cream, and there will also be a “Kids Korner” with “poster making station, sidewalk chalk, activities.” Somebody go enjoy some ice cream for me since I am very unlikely to make it out for tonight’s match.
As Tom pointed out in the Anchor Drop yesterday, the SEC Coaches ranked Vanderbilt 4th in the league. Darren Ambrose’s squad had already been tabbed as #18 in the country by the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll. These rankings should give you some idea (if you have not read anything I have written about the team) of how talented this team is and what kind of program Coach Ambrose is building.
The two-match preseason slate gave Vanderbilt a short time to figure out some important questions. While only three significant pieces moved on at the end of last season, Haley Hopkins left a gaping hole. No one player is likely to fill her shoes, and the inability to see the Memphis exhibition further limited my ability to observe the changes from last season. What I did see surprised me a bit with the use of a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, but Maddie Elwell and Raegan Kelley also did not appear in that match. With only one data point, it is hard to know whether the deployment that night was one we might see with the full roster or was an adjustment based on who was available.
Vanderbilt will face a Tennessee Tech team that prides itself on being nearly impossible to crack defensively. The Golden Eagles also played two exhibitions. They opened by beating North Alabama 2-0 then lost 2-0 to MTSU. Both matches were in Cookeville. The Golden Eagles return a very experienced group. Katie Ban Lancaster is the only player who appeared in a match and is not returning. She started 4 matches and played all 10.
To that point, TTU played a 10-match OVC-only schedule. The Golden Eagles were 4-5-1. Defense was the calling card, and Isabelle Austin was named OVC Goalkeeper of the Year. She started all 10 matches and played every minute while allowing only 7 goals from 65 shots on goal. The defense allowing 6.5 SOG per match is not particularly impressive but not too bad. Austin earned her award for sure. The attack was a problem though. Generating 5.6 SOG per game is below average but not awful. Scoring only 6 times in 10 matches is not going to win many contests though. I am not sure if shot quality was the issue or if quality of finishing ended with two may easy saves.
For some comparison, Vanderbilt 5.7 SOG per game while scoring 1.88 goals per game. Defensively, the Commodores allowed 1.25 goals per game from 4.8 SOG per game. Vanderbilt allowed 1.7 fewer SOG per game but was scored on 0.65 times more per game. Sarah Fuller was fantastic in net, too, so that tells you about Austin’s shot stopping ability.
Facing an experienced squad early in the season poses some challenges. I doubt Tech has many position battles up for grabs, but it is possible some freshman or other newcomers will be pushing for playing time, especially at midfield or forward where more attacking play may be desired. The good news is that Vanderbilt also is very experienced. I mentioned there being three significant losses. Outside of Hopkins, right midfielder Leila Azari and goalkeeper/place kicker Sarah Fuller were the noteworthy departures. Kate Devine has impressed every time she has been on the field, including starting over Fuller in last spring’s NCAA tournament match against Penn State.
Azari’s replacement likely depends on what formation and tactical systems Coach Ambrose chooses to employ. There is also a small bit of suspense about Myra Konte’s availability. The Hustler seemed to indicate Konte would not be playing this season, but she is part of the promotional schedule poster giveaway. Since the injury in question occurred last season, it seems odd that she would be on the poster if the team knew she would not be playing. Either way, the defensive options without her are still more than qualified between Ava Hetzel, Ella Shamburger, Maya Antoine, and Madiya Harriott.
Outside of the formation, I still want to see who is playing up top. It is not just about replacing Hopkins. Regardless of how excellent she was at forward, college sports are all about replacing players as they cycle out. As I explained in the forward preview, the Commodores have some theoretically good options there and which pair or trio works best together may not be the two or three most individually talented players.
Questions aside, this match is winnable. It is a matchup Vanderbilt should win fairly handily. Tennessee Tech are not pushover, but their defense was not particularly good at suppressing shots. Elwell, Kelley, Brighton, and others are unlikely to be held off the board if the Golden Eagles allow the same shot volume. Even a ‘keeper as talented as Austin will either make a mistake or simply be beaten by a great shot at some point.
Again, I will not be attending the match. Due to work, I would be unable to make kickoff, so I would rather just watch from home. I am planning on making it down for Sunday’s contest with Purdue. Once the lineups are out, I will add post them in the comments. As always, if there are any questions before, during, or after the match, feel free to drop a comment.