Vanderbilt Commodore athletics are almost back. The first team competition of the fall will be August 8th when the soccer team hosts Chattanooga for a preseason exhibition. The ladies will play at Memphis August 13th in another exhibition before starting the regular season with Tennessee Tech coming to West End on August 19th. A full schedule breakdown and season outlook will come down after the friendlies give us a better idea of what this team looks like in action.
The extra year of eligibility granted by COVID along with other factors like limited professional opportunities have allowed Vanderbilt to return the bulk of an already experienced group. Unfortunately, the best player for the last 2, maybe 3, years will not be returning as Haley Hopkins transferred to Virginia. Along with Hopkins, the notable departures are forward Olivia Simmons and wide midfielder Leila Azari. Regular rotation pieces midfielder Paola “Blue” Ellis and defender Kayla Eason are also no longer on the roster. Bit pieces defender Blair McDonald and midfielder Alea Hyatt complete the list of outfield players no longer at Darren Ambrose’s disposal. Oh, and goalkeeper/placekicker Sarah Fuller has transferred to North Texas.
For now, I want to dive into what each position group might look like and how the two most likely tactical deployments will change what we see from each group. Coach Ambrose has favored either a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 (sometimes tweaked slightly to a 4-1-4-1) formation over the last few seasons. Roles and responsibilities change a bit, as will which players provide the best eleven on the pitch. As you can gather from the title, today we are going over both defenders and goalkeepers.
For those that do not know, this is my position. I played it in high school then at Auburn. I am currently coaching high school soccer focusing on the goalkeepers. If it feels like I spend way too much time focusing on them, you know why.
With Sarah Fuller gone, the spot between the posts is likely Kate Devine’s to lose. Sophie Guilmette started the fall season as the starter but was replaced by Fuller after the first 3 matches due to some poor decisions that led to goals against. Devine started sharing time with Fuller at the end of the spring season and played all 90 minutes in the NCAA Tournament loss to Penn State. In that match, Devine saved 4 of the 6 shots on goal she faced. In 65 minutes against Duke, she saved all 5 shots in route to a 0-0 OT Draw.
The biggest difference in Devine and Guilmette appeared to be comfort. Even as a freshman, Kate never looked uncomfortable or out of place. Sophie’s instincts failed her a few times early then she started second-guessing herself, which just compounded her problems. Unless something has changed drastically over the course of the offseason, Devine will be the starter. The Commodores do have Sara Wojdelko coming in as a freshman. I know nothing about Wojdelko’s abilities, though her list of accolades to this point is VERY impressive, but I feel confident that she will be held off, at least to start the season.
It may come as a surprise, but the goalkeeper’s role will actually vary between the formations. In a back 3, the keeper is typically expected to be more aggressive and help defenders clean up through balls that get beyond defenders. Their skills with the ball at their feet may also be called upon more often with the back 3. Both of those things again point to Devine as the likely starter.
Ella Shamburger is the anchor of the defense. She had started all 21 games in both of her freshman and sophomore campaigns. She started 15 of the 16 matches, and I believe the only match she did not play (Memphis) was due to COVID. She played 1382 minutes out of a possible 1496. Both Maya Antoine and Madiya Harriot also surpassed the 1000 minutes played threshold. Myra Konte fell short of that due to some injury issues but started all 12 games in which she played while also being named MVP of the SEC tournament, which Vanderbilt won. Konte also became Vanderbilt’s first ever NWSL draft pick when taken in the 3rd round by the North Carolina Courage.
Vanderbilt also recently announced an addition via transfer that is eligible for this season. Ava Hetzel joins the Commodores after one season with Arizona. Hetzel started all 15 matches (one of 4 to do so for Wildcats) and tallied a goal and assist. She played more minutes (1130 of 1370) than any other Arizona freshman and fourth most on the team. She also took 5 more shots than any other freshman with 17. So why with all of that, why did she decided to leave Arizona, much less transfer to a program with so much already returning along its back line?
We have to get into the tactics a bit to answer that question. The defensive positions are the ones most altered by the change from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 (or any formation with a back 4). In a back 3, you typically do not see defenders making attacking runs, though Konte’s play in the SEC tournament showed how dangerous it can be if the right player is given the right amount of freedom. Coach Ambrose likely would not want both Konte and Hetzel flanking Shamburger though, and Hetzel’s offensive production indicates she would be ripe for a move into a wide midfield role to take over the spot on the right side vacated by Azari. Then Harriot slots in with Konte and Shamburger with Antoine used as a sub for any of the back 3 to keep bodies fresh.
In a back 4, I would expect to see Shamburger and Harriot at the CB spots with Hetzel and Konte marauding up the flanks from the outside back spots. Of course, Hetzel could even see herself playing as a winger in a 4-3-3 or an attacking wide midfielder in the 4-1-4-1. The exhibitions will be a good time to see how she is deployed.
Beyond those 5, the playing time will be somewhat sparse. Last season, only Eason (115), McDonald (5), and Alex Wagner (214) played minutes outside of the quartet of Shamburger, Konte, Harriot, and Antoine. Wagner plays a similar but lesser game to what I expect from Hetzel, so she will probably get some relief minutes. Senior Hannah Morgan played 164 minutes in 2019 after transferring into Vanderbilt from Providence then did not see the field last season. Her minutes will likely come in situations involving injury or games that are out of reach. Freshman Emma Mueller could be one to watch, but she obviously has an uphill climb to crack the lineup.
The amount of talent in the defensive line and at goalkeeper is impressive. The intrigue is in how the minutes get split and how the individuals are utilized. The biggest key is that their flexibility will allow Coach Ambrose to use either a back 3 or back 4 to try and find what tactics most benefit the team based on the midfielders and forwards.