As previewed yesterday, Vanderbilt should be very stout at the back with some defenders even providing important attacking options. The midfielders ahead of them will benefit while also adding more than their fair share to attack and defense. The real question is whether Head Coach Darren Ambrose primarily trots out a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3. Of course, we will probably see both formations early in the season. It may even change game to game throughout the season depending on injuries, performances, and opponents. Switching from a back 3 to a back 4 or vice versa is a bit like a football team going from primarily shotgun to primarily under center. The smoothness with which Vanderbilt has been able to execute both in recent seasons is impressive.
Before going any further, one detail needs to be discussed. I keep saying 4-3-3 will be Vanderbilt’s deployment when using a back 4. It can and has also been listed as a 4-1-4-1. Soccer formations are listed from defense to attack with the understood 1 for the goalkeeper left off. Teams and broadcasters have leeway in how they list formations, but there will be at least 3 “lines” listed. For a 4-3-3, that means 4 defenders, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards. A 4-1-4-1 has 4 defenders, 1 defensive (more specifically, center defensive) midfielder, 4 neutral midfielders (only having side-to-side designators, not attacking or defensive), and 1 forward. Really, the typical usages of these two formations only vary in defensive responsibility of the outsider midfielders in the 4-1-4-1’s midfield line of 4 or the 2 wide forwards in the 4-3-3’s attacking line of 3. Those players are freed of almost all defensive responsibility in a 4-3-3, thus allowing them to be more readily available in the attack whereas they may be forced to defend more in the 4-1-4-1 and not be as ready for counter attacks or outlet passes. If you have any more questions about this or anything else soccer related, the comments are always open.
The best way to break this down will be to talk about the two distinct formations (3-5-2 and 4-3-3) and who can be expected to fill each spot separately. There will be a lot of overlap, but the differences are worthwhile to cover.
As with the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, you could re-write this as a 3-2-2-1-2 if you REALLY wanted to be meticulous but a more common designation for Vanderbilt’s version of the 3-5-2 is the 3-2-3-2. Coach Ambrose prefers to have 2 holding/defensive midfielders centrally positioned in front of the back 3. Last season, Abi Brighton and Kimya Raietparvar were the first-choice options. That should stay the same with both players returning.
Once Vanderbilt gains possession, one of them will join the attack while the other maintains her positioning just in front of the defenders to break up any opposing counter attacks. Brighton in particular was electric when given the chance to step forward. She scored 3 goals and all 3 were varying degrees of contender for SportsCenter’s Top 10. Her first goal came in at #3. Coach Ambrose said Brighton was being played a bit out of position since she has typically been an attacking midfielder, but the fact she committed 18 fouls (tied most on team) and only was shown 1 yellow card is a testament to both how tenaciously she defended but also how well she understands fouling while avoiding discipline.
For her part, Raietparvar is far from a passenger. She just offers a steadier game that includes intercepting passes, making good first passes, and being the link that gets the ball from defenders to the more creative midfielders and forwards to start the attack. Her combinations with the wide midfielders are particularly important.
The left side of the midfield will be patrolled by 2-time (2019 and 2020) All-SEC Second Teamer Maddie Elwell. If you have seen my previous coverage, you know how highly I think of her. She may not have blazing speed, but her ability to get defenders off balance then break past them gets her into dangerous crossing positions. Then she typically finds a Commodore head or foot for a goal-scoring opportunity. Last season was a bit sluggish for her as Elwell only tallied 2 goals and 4 assists in 16 games. In 2019, she only scored once but created 10 goals in 21 games. With her favorite target Haley Hopkins gone, she may well be asked to score more herself. Or she may just find new teammates willing to capitalize on her service.
Opposite Elwell for the past 3 seasons has been Leila Azari. Azari was at least equally talented to Elwell, so the Commodores could rely on consistent scoring chances coming from either flank. My guess to replace Azari in a 3-5-2 is newcomer Ava Hetzel, but Amber Nguyen was the usual replacement when Azari was struggling or needed a breather in 2020. I could also see Nguyen move into a forward spot with the absence of Hopkins and abundance of options defensively making Hetzel an option for this spot. This position is definitely one to watch during the exhibitions … if they’re going to be streamed or open to fans.
The 5th midfielder in this formation is a center attacking midfielder. It will, barring her moving forward to a forward role with Brighton backfilling her, be Raegan Kelley. She has started the last 44 matches in her career. Her 5 goals were second only to Hopkins, who had 7, for 2020-21. Kelley had 3 goals and 2 assists in 2019. Her primary skill is driving at defenders in and around the box to create just enough space for a shot or to setup a teammate in a golden position, which makes her lack of assists a bit surprising. Kelley will be one of the most important pieces to replacing Hopkins’s production, barring the revelation of a new super-striker.
So, what changes? Elwell goes from being a left mid to left wing by shifting to the forward line. The right wing is less obvious and will be discussed in the forward preview. The Brighton-Raietparvar pairing probably stays the same, but it could be more defined. In the 4-1-4-1 variant or even an adjustment to the most commonly used 4-3-3 setup, Raietparvar will be the lone holding mid while Brighton joins Kelley in the advanced group of 4 midfielders. Kelley stays at the head of the midfield attack.
Now, you might be looking at that and wondering what the big difference is. The short answer is that there really is not one big difference. The long answer goes into why it can be a huge difference or not much of one. As mentioned with Raietparvar in the 3-5-2 section, one of her primary roles is to combine with the outside midfielders. In a 4-3-3, she could do the same thing, but now with the outside backs OR by taking a pass from the outside back then pinging it to the winger on that side. However, the extra space in midfield now makes dribbling to attack a more feasible plan for the central trio of Raietparvar, Brighton, and Kelley. They will only dribble sparing in the 3-5-2 but may find themselves in enough space to carry the ball forward and force defenders to either commit to stopping the ball or tracking the front 3 and any already-advanced midfielders. Kelley and anyone else in the attacking midfield role will also pick up a bit more defensive responsibility.
While none of the returners should be expected to lose their starting spot, there is some talent to come off the bench. For the midfield, this depth is very important since these players often run the most in a match. The two returning subs with the most experience are Madi Allen and Mya Swinton. They played 752 and 492 minutes, respectively, last season. Peyton Cutshall is shown as a midfielder/forward on the roster and could be the most common face to grant Raegan Kelley a reprieve. Cutshall could also slot in up top with a spot up for grabs there.
Freshmen Vida Raietparvar, Quinn Cornog, and Shania Diaz will be battling for any time they can find along with seldom-utilized seniors Mairin Boyle. Yes, Vida is Kimya’s younger sister. The younger Raietparvar has played for Iran’s U-19 National Team and even been called in to camp with the Senior National Team. Vida has also participated in Olympic Development Program (ODP) Region Camps. I would guess she finds a way to scratch out 20 minutes or so per game to start then may earn more if her plays dictates it.
Cornog is also highly touted. TopDrawerSoccer had her as the #22 recruit (#7 midfielder) in her class. She was First Team All-State in Texas and has participated in French club Olympique Lyonnais’s talent identification program. She captained her U-17 side in 2019 to a development academy national championship then followed that up by captaining the #1 U-18 side in 2020, though apparently falling short of the national championship in the tournament stage. I would expect a similar role for her as Vida, though she may get more minutes sooner if her pre-season performance matches her accolades.
Diaz comes in with fewer accolades. Still, it is always interesting to see which freshmen can create or find an opportunity and grab ahold of it.
Overall, this group of midfielders nearly matches the defenders for positions being seemingly locked down by returners. Elwell and Kelley being able to produce as the most important players for other teams to stop will be key. Those two will need to create even more goals by scoring, assisting, or providing the golden opportunities for teammates to do either. Abi Brighton is going to be a star and will also take on more responsibility after her breakout freshman campaign.