Vanderbilt faces #5 Duke today at 2 PM CT. The game will be streamed on SECN+ and ESPN+. The Dores sit at 1-1-1 while Duke is 3-0. The Blue Devils have beaten Arkansas 3-1, Washington 2-1, and Western Carolina 6-0. This will be today’s visitors first match away from home. Before we get to previewing today’s match, let us look back at Thursday evening.
The Commodores trip to Bowling Green was frustrating. The game was marred by a trio of controversial penalty kick decisions. Vanderbilt was called for two fouls in their defensive box while being awarded a spot kick of their own. The Hilltoppers first chance was given with more than one valid complaint by the Commodores. The other two calls were questionable at best.
The ball appeared – and I went back to re-watch these moments – to be out of play before Madiya Harriott’s sliding attempt to keep it in play. The ball fell to a Topper attacker who carried the ball into the box only for Maya Antoine to poke it away cleanly. The attacker then flopped to the ground. Abi Brighton did make a sliding attempt on the loose ball that crunched another WKU player, but I think the PK had already been awarded AND even her tackle seemed unlikely to be given as a foul since the Western player had just knocked the ball well away from anyone as the tackle was being made. Devine nearly made the dubious officiating not matter as she got a hand to the shot but could not quite push it wide.
Four minutes later, Raegan Kelley would have the ball tackled away while trying to line up a shot. It was a hard but, to my eye, fair challenge. My reaction to the call was literally to laugh while at the game. On replay, I still think it was a blatant make-up call. I hate it. Kelley would have a good PK to the bottom left corner saved, but she found the rebound, spun, and put it in the net.
The next goal was annoying for a different reason. Harriot was first to a ball intended for WKU’s Kayla Meyer down the wing. Facing her own goal, the defender appears to have tried to cut a square (straight horizontal) pass to Antoine. It is hard to tell if the ball deflected off Meyer or was just mishit. The ball ended up rolling back to Devine who scooped it up. There was a momentary delay before the official’s whistle indicated Devine was being called for a handball since a goalkeeper cannot handle a ball intentionally passed to her by a teammate’s feet. WKU would not waste the chance as a light tap and perfectly curled shot to the far post beat a diving Devine with only 13 minutes to play.
Vanderbilt reorganized to the 3-5-2 and would pour on the pressure. It would pay off when Maddie Elwell left an attacker laying facedown after some fancy footwork and ball control. She whipped a cross in that Abi Brighton would redirect into the Western net for the tying goal with only 2:27 to play, which seemed like an eternity after they scored with only 28 seconds left in regulation to get the Purdue match to extra time. Sophia Gorski deserves credit for both her hard near post run that pulled a defender and being smart enough to not flail wildly at the ball played across the goal behind her. Instead, Gorski just posted up the defender marking her to prevent the ball being cleared before Brighton could knock it home.
The game-deciding decision almost 4 minutes into OT was a case of an attacker knowing the referee was calling minimal contact as a foul. Katie Erwin, the most dangerous Topper, got into the penalty area then just waited for any contact to go down. Antoine was just a bit too zealous and gave her the opportunity. I do not think the scenarios for foul/no foul should ever change, whether that means in the box or in OT or both. I just hate soft foul calls in general. Devine again got her hand to the shot but was not able to get this one over the crossbar.
Games like these are ones you worry about when it comes to team psyche. Vanderbilt was far from perfect, so they cannot afford to chalk it all up to poor officiating. Results like this are why I always, often to the consternation of others, talk about process over result. Vanderbilt had every statistical advantage except the scoreboard.
The visiting Commodores had a 17 to 7 advantage in shot attempts and had 6 shots land on target as opposed to the Hilltopper’s 4. Vanderbilt led possession 56% to 44% with the attacking half advantage also going to the Dores 38% to 30%. The Commodore’s defensive work also helped limit to 7.9% of the game in the final quarter of the field, whereas Vanderbilt had the ball there 16.8% of the match. Yes, Vanderbilt had the ball within about 25 yards of WKU’s goal for almost 16 minutes and only created a single goal from the run of play.
In comparison to previous games, the lack of goals seemed to be more of a product of saves than missed shots. Only 4 shots missed the target. With 2 goals from 8 shots on goal, the other 5 attempts were blocked by outfield players. There were some chances that could have been taken better. Alex Kerr put a free header into the ground instead of on target. I do not remember the other shots that were not on target off the top of my head.
For the second week, Vanderbilt scored after switching to a 3-5-2 in crunch time, though the first time had little to do with formation. This goal was an Elwell special delivery though. She showed how deadly she can be when picking up the ball near midfield and having space to attack defenders 1v1 while having attacking options ahead to play the ball. I hope the coaches are at least considering the option.
Moving forward, the Commodores have the stiffest test of the season coming to West End today. As stated, Duke is perfect on the season and scoring in bunches. Michelle Cooper leads the attack with 4 goals while Mackenzie Pluck and Emmy Duerr both have a pair. Duerr has only appeared in one game. The other scorers have been Tess Boade, Grace Watkins, and Marykate McGuire. Boade and Julia Burnell have both provided two assists while Maggie Graham and Pluck have one each.
The dominance has allowed Duke to get 3 different goalkeepers into matches. Ruthie Jones is the starter and has played 225 minutes and allowed both goals against while making 5 saves. Holly Slam has the only other save in 11:22. Maddie Nielsen has been on the field for 33:38 with no stats registered. Opponents have only managed 13 shot attempts with 8 of them being on target.
Vanderbilt has been good defensively. The Commodores have allowed a few more shots (19) and SOGs (10). Opponents have scored 4 goals, but only Purdue’s single goal came from the run of play. As long as the official is not desperate for reasons to give penalty kicks, Vanderbilt can hold their own. The attack has been the problem.
Shot creation has been fine with 57 attempts. Even the ability to get the ball on target has been okay with 25 SOGs. The quality of the finish just has been a touch off until they get to desperation time. Thursday’s goal was exactly what I was talking about with switching to the 3-5-2 where Elwell got to be at her best. It should be said that Elwell was actually very good against Western in the 4-3-3, too. She looked more comfortable and aggressive.
Today, the Commodores need to be confident and attacking today. Do not back down from Duke. It is a very difficult opponent. Coach Ambrose’s side is scuffling a bit as they adjust. The best thing to do for their growth is to keep moving forward in their style. The temptation is to be more conservative when facing a high-scoring, very talented opponent. I do not think we will see that today, nor should we. This will either serve as a marker of how far the ladies have to go to reach their goals or as a sign that they are finding their way to those goals.