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Soccer Preview and Game Thread: Tennessee

A rivalry game to decide the SEC East. Both teams need a win.

The last regular season game has a lot on the line. Not that we needed more reasons to relish in a chance to knock off THEM.

Vanderbilt played their final home match of the season Sunday. The Commodores defended West End from the clanging cowbells of Mississippi State in a 2-1 victory. It was a bit of a nervy showdown as Vanderbilt reverted to the clunkier play of the 4-4-2 Diamond midway through the first half. They had taken an early lead before being pegged back in the 11th minute. The winner would come in the 76th minute on a gorgeous Alex Wagner cross that was poked home by Hannah McLaughlin.

Vanderbilt (right) smothered Mississippi State’s attack but did not create enough quality chances to create a comfortable lead.

The home squad was clearly superior, but the meager number of shots on goal prevented control from becoming dominance. Reverting to the 4-4-2 Diamond also impacted where Vanderbilt could keep the ball. Mississippi State was dropping into their own half, so playing the ball around just inside the Vanderbilt half was easy along the back line. Crossing midfield without skipping the midfielders was trickier. The ball often had to go straight in to the lone attacking midfielder or a striker. Vanderbilt did find the left and right midfielders some to vary the attack.

A goal by a senior and one by a freshman on Senior Day.

One major change since the last time Coach Ambrose deployed the squad this way was Abi Brighton playing the defensive midfield role right in front of the back four. Hannah McLaughlin moved out to right side of midfield. That is not the freshman’s best position, and I pointed that out on Twitter. Of course, she ended up scoring while positioned there. However, the goal she scored could have come from basically any midfield position based on the run timing and location from which she made it.

It should be noted that the Dores started in the 4-2-3-1 that has been successful lately. I did not catch whether they switched before or after State’s goal, but surely the change was not to sit on a lead that early. Something State was doing must have concerned the coaches enough about a matchup to make the adjustment. I still think, even with the win, it was the wrong decision but was bailed out by Alex Wagner putting in a ridiculous early cross for McLaughlin to redirect into the net.

Add it to the highlight reel. You cannot place a ball much better than Wagner did. She really has been an unsung hero for this team even as she has earned an SEC Defensive Player of the Week award once this season. She does so much from that left back role. It is a demanding position with the amount of attacking and defending expected of her and Abena Aidoo on the other side. Wagner has played the third most minutes of any Commodore behind only the center back pairing of Shamburger and Antoine. Her speed catches opponents off guard consistently. I do not know how fast she really is, but I do know it is faster than everyone she has gone one-on-one with this year. Wagner does seem to have afterburners because she has her normal run then the head shifts forward a bit, and the arms really get pumping. Then she tracks down the ball or an attacker like they are standing still.

Speaking of speed, Alex Kerr showed some to score the opening goal. She picked the ball up just inside the attacking half and carried it 50 yards before beating the goalkeeper near post. Kerr is not nearly as speedy as Wagner, but she had enough juice to outrun the MSU right back and not get cut off by either center back.

Kate Devine went her second straight game without a save. Against Florida, neither of the goals against were her fault. The breakdown against Clanga was between Devine and Shamburger on a through ball. Devine wanted Shamburger to protect it to be picked up, but that would have been a tall task as the ball slowed. Since the goalkeeper had closed the space, it also took away Shamburger’s option for a drop and clear. The CB would lose possession, and Maggie Wadsworth would put the ball by Devine, who was caught out positionally while trying to reset. It was a rare mistake by the Commodore keeper, but she is sometimes too aggressive. However, her aggressiveness saves her team a lot, too. You definitely will live with the tradeoff, but it is a teaching moment.

Devine will likely have to be at her best tonight as the Commodores head to Knoxville with the SEC East title on the line. The Volunteers score a lot of goals. They have tallied 40 times in their 16 games. The scoring pace has slowed a bit during conference play with 15 goals in 9 games. Defensively, they had been very good until a 6-1 thrashing last Sunday hosting South Carolina, who has not been offensively prolific this season. Excluding that match, Tennessee had allowed 13 goals and only 6 in conference play.

In nonconference play, Jaida Thomas was on fire. She had 8 goals in 7 matches. Against SEC opposition, she has 4 goals in 9 matches, so the threat is still very real. Four Vols are even at 4 total goals. Mackenzie George, Jordan Fusco, and Taylor Huff all have tallied only once since facing SEC defenses, but Kameron Simmonds has scored 3 times in that span. George and Huff have each assisted on 6 goals. Four of George’s helpers have been in conference play, too. Claudia Dipasupil has also come on since the pressure turned up by scoring 3 times and assisting 4 other goals after only having 1 assist prior.

Lindsey Romig has started every match in goal except the first two, which she missed due to illness. She has been the SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice this season and ranks in the Top 5 in save percentage, career goals against average, saves, and shutouts in the Volunteer record books. Romig had been riding a 5-match shutout streak before South Carolina ripped her defense apart before her eyes. She and her defenders will certainly have been focused on not repeating those blunders.

To that point, someone asked if SC beating THEM the way they did was a problem. Most of the time, I would say it could be depending on the opponent’s reaction. Tonight, the motivation of winning the SEC East against a rival was probably enough incentive to have Tennessee preparing their best no matter how the last match went.

When it comes to scenarios for each team to win the East, it is pretty simple. Vanderbilt needs to win the match OR draw and have South Carolina draw or lose hosting Missouri. For Tennessee, they need to win and have South Carolina draw or lose. If this game is tied late, expect fireworks as each team tries to get the win they need. Missouri-South Carolina does kickoff 30 minutes after Vanderbilt-Tennessee, so scoreboard watching will not be particularly helpful unless that game becomes a first half blowout.

For the team(s) that do not win the East, their SEC Tournament seeding gets thrown in the full SEC pool. Alabama at 9-0-0 has locked up the SEC title and #1 seed. The #2 seed goes to the winner of the East. Vanderbilt has the 1-point advantage on SC and UT there for now, but the Commodores only have 17 points in all of SEC play. The current seeds 3 through 9 are Tennessee (19), Arkansas (17), South Carolina (16), Georgia (16), Mississippi State (13), LSU (13), and Ole Miss (10). The 10th and final seed is a tie between Missouri (9) and Texas A&M (9). Auburn is also not out of the hunt with 8 points, but they have Alabama tonight. I did not look into the tiebreakers for any of these teams because so much of it will change tonight with a full slate of action.

Vanderbilt’s match will be over before any of the other games of consequence, so the scoreboard watching if the Commodores fail to win will be real. The most important game is obviously Missouri at South Carolina. Then, if Vanderbilt has not locked up the East, Kentucky at Arkansas and Georgia at Mississippi State become important for seeding, though the SEC Soccer tournament with its 10 teams only has a single bye for the division winners, which I had misstated before due to a commentator saying otherwise on a broadcast. In fact, Vanderbilt has guaranteed not to be playing on Sunday since they cannot finish below the 6th seed.

Tonight’s kickoff is at 5:30 PM CT from the Regal Soccer Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The match will be televised on SEC Network and streamed on WatchESPN, but I am not sure if just having ESPN+ would get the game since it is televised. I will be on a flight at kickoff, so I will be quiet for the first 20 minutes or so of the match. My coverage after that will still be spotty as I will be driving straight from the airport to Bridgestone Arena to be disappointed by the Predators. The updates will come as I can though.