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Soccer Preview and Game Thread: Florida

Vanderbilt’s (association) football team is locked in a battle for the SEC East crown.

Raegan Kelley and Peyton Cutshall look like they knew after halftime they were going to be involved in a goal for the Commodores.

Last Friday night was a fun one on West End. Vanderbilt hosted then #24 South Carolina for an important SEC East soccer clash. Except for the whining Gamecock parents, who would have thought a game of pattycake deserved a red card, it was a very enjoyable match. Both teams wanted to possess the ball and control buildup play, but it was not overly cautious.

Vanderbilt (right) worked all night to break down the stingy South Carolina defense and was finally rewarded late in the match.

The eye catcher is the defensive quarter possession numbers for both teams. It is reasonable to expect an overlay of zones to have similar percentages of that team’s total possession, so you would think if Vanderbilt spent 28% of their time on the ball within 30 yards of South Carolina’s goal that the Gamecocks would have a similar percentage of their possession in that area. Instead, both teams eagerness to get forward meant the defensive quarters were the smallest share for each of them. In fact, the numbers almost exactly mirrored each other. Overall, the Dores had a slight advantage in time on the ball, but the Lady Cocks would attempt more shots and get more of them on goal. The hosts would score an extra goal though.

It may say the “TEAM” had a save, but Alex Wagner deserves full credit and will get it below.

Coach Darren Ambrose deployed his starting XI something mostly resembling a 4-2-3-1, but the wide midfielders were very eager to play as outright wingers. The fullbacks, especially Abena Aidoo, were flying forward at every chance. There were times that Alex Wagner had the ball at LB, and Aidoo was already overlapping Nguyen on the right flank. It really caused problems for SC.

Five outfield players going the full 90 along with Aidoo and Raegan Kelley going 86 and 87 minutes, respectively, was so impressive. The intensity of the game was high all night, and none of the Commodores ever looked to be lacking energy. Coach Ambrose is willing to go deep into his bench most nights, but he saw how his team was playing and tried to leave the magic alone as much as possible.

The real surprise was that the game took until the 73rd minute for the first goal to be scored. A low cross would come in from Kate Devine’s left and get all the way to the back post just outside the 6-yard box. Tina Bruni was beaten by the run of Shae O’Rourke, and the close range effort left Devine with no chance. However, the visiting fans would not be happy for long as Amber Nguyen would earn a penalty kick 36 seconds later. “Captain Cool” Ella Shamburger would put the chance from 12 yards away with ease, taking her to 3 for 3 from the spot in her Commodore career.

Five minutes later, Vanderbilt completed the twist of fate when Alex Kerr put in a low cross of her own. Peyton Cutshall would draw a defender with a run towards the ball then dummy it (let it roll between her legs) for Kelley who did her part by knocking the bouncing ball just inside the near post. The Commodores would buckle down and only allow 3 more shots, with Devine called into action to save 2 of them. Devine was active in coming out to claim a couple of through balls and a pair of corner kicks to prevent a shot from coming.

The biggest defensive play happened when the match was scoreless though. Devine would make another great, aggressive play to slide in on a Lady Cock outside the penalty area. The ball fell to the visiting attacker, but help was on the way.

That play embodies the way Vanderbilt won this match. They were all fully committed to the cause. Whatever was needed got done by someone in white. There were very few moments of hesitation. If they keep playing with that conviction, this team can make a lot of noise in these last 3 matches of the regular season and in Pensacola for the SEC Tournament. The NCAA Tournament prospects are an unknown, but the Dores likely control their own destiny here. Two wins from the last three, even without winning the SEC East, and a couple wins in Pensacola seems like it should be enough since that would give them a 13-4-3 (7-4-2) record assuming all of the non-wins are losses not draws. The RPI is currently 47 and would probably end up lower 40s or better with those results.

As it stands, Vanderbilt is 2nd in the East and trails THEM by 2 points. Vanderbilt’s remaining division matches are at Florida tonight and at Tennessee October 27th. Tennessee hosts South Carolina, who is 3rd in the division with only a point separating them from Vanderbilt, on October 23rd before the in-state rivalry game to close the regular season. If Coach Ambrose’s squad cannot pass THEM, the overall SEC seeding gets very murky.

The quick rundown is that, with 3 matches to play, Vanderbilt is in a tie for 6th (LSU) with 11 points. As it stands, the teams ahead of them are Arkansas (15), Mississippi State (13), and South Carolina (12). The non-division math left for the Commodores is a home clash with Clanga, so that would become a massive contest. Behind Vanderbilt, the teams currently 8th through 12th are Georgia (10), Ole Miss (9), Texas A&M (7), Auburn (7), and Missourah (7). Only 10 teams make the tournament. Kentucky and Florida are both 0-6-1 in conference play, so they mathematically cannot pass Vanderbilt.

With that reminder of the Gator’s struggles this season, minnows have a tendency of taking a bite out of the sharks in soccer. It takes one fortuitous deflection on a corner kick, lapse defensively, or poor turnover to give the lesser team a golden opportunity. A team with a lead can then bunker in to defend their lead with their lives. A draw would be a debilitating blow to Vanderbilt’s East division championship hopes.

After scoring twice against a team with only 6 goals allowed all season before facing Vanderbilt, the Gators having allowed 28 goals in 14 matches is a welcome sight. Florida’s lone conference standing point comes from a 1-1 draw at Kentucky on Sunday. The Gators had lost the previous 6 conference matches by an aggregate of 3-11. The best thing Florida has done was limiting South Carolina and Arkansas both to 1 goal in the losses.

It is hard to pinpoint a Gator most likely to take a bite out of the Commodores when the team lead for goals scored is shared 5 ways at 2 goals each. The leading assister Julianne Leskauskas is one of those leading scorers, but she only has 2 assists. Tessa Barton, Delaney Tauzel, Alivia Gonzalez, and Syd Kennedy round out the list of 2-goal scorers. Barton and Tauzel have an assist each, too. Maddy Pirrello, Anna DeLeon, and Sophie White have lone goals with Pirrello also assisting once. The ladies with one assist and no goals are Lauren McCloskey, Kourie Peace, and Oakley Rasmussen. In conference play, Pirrello (1G 1A), Tauzel (1G 1A), Barton (1G), Kennedy (1G), Leskauskas (1A), and Rasmussen (1A) are the only names on the scoresheet.

In goal, Alexa Goldberg has been on the receiving end of the Gators’ poor play. She has started all 14 matches but was substituted in the 38th minute against Arkansas. It was likely a minor injury issue since a foul by Razorbacks, and the goal had been scored 30 minutes earlier. I will not be too harsh on Goldberg, but she only has a 0.692 save percentage in conference play. Her save percentage for the full season is slightly worse at 0.650. Against SEC opponents, she has allowed 12 goals from 39 shots on target. Based on the fact she has not been replaced except in the one match, I suspect she is not the problem. Goalkeepers making serious blunders rarely have a long leash. It is similar to a QB where you do not want to make the change, but sticking with a bad goalkeeper will ruin the entire team’s morale. Since she has stayed between the pipes, the defenders are likely leaving her out to dry.

Tonight’s match in Gainesville is an early kickoff. The 5 PM CT match will be streamed on SECN+/ESPN+ as per the usual. The other matches of interest are Texas A&M at #21 South Carolina, Ole Miss at Georgia, #2 Alabama at Mississippi State, #18 Tennessee at Auburn, and LSU @ #9 Arkansas. Of course, the SEC in its infinite wisdom has all of those matches on streaming while Kentucky at Missouri gets the TV slot on SEC Network. Join me in the comments for live updates on our game and maybe major happenings in the others.