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Soccer Preview and Game Thread: Alabama (SECT)

This is slightly less daunting than playing them in American football but only because our soccer team is good.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Sara Wojdelko made one costly mistake but more than covered herself over the next 104 minutes and ensuing penalty kicks.
Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Commodores tied the #9 team in the country and #4 seed in the SEC Tournament on Tuesday before eliminating the Razorbacks in PKs. It is one of my favorite quirks about my least favorite way to end a soccer match. Yes, the official results will show a draw on both teams’ records. Beside (or under) the 1-1 final score, the PK results will be shown in parentheses as 5-4. Vanderbilt had to battle back from an early deficit against a team that had only allowed 4 goals in SEC play and 11 goals all season along with blanking the Commodores in their first matchup.

Vanderbilt (left) used possession to slow the game down at times while Arkansas drove forward at every opportunity.

While Vanderbilt had the ball longer, Arkansas’s direct approach got the ball forward faster. The Commodores had the ball for 13 minutes more than the Razorbacks yet would spend 1 minute less within shooting range and 3 minutes less in the attacking half. It would have been interesting to see the game unfold if Arkansas did not get an early goal and force Vanderbilt to chase them a little bit, but, as it was, Vanderbilt played a more controlled game but could not be too conservative.

Six players going the full distance in an intense 2OT game speaks volumes about their conditioning.

The early goal might have been the only mistake Sara Wojdelko made all night. She decided to come out to claim the ball from the feet of an attacker and was beaten, so she clattered into the attacker resulting in a penalty kick for Arkansas. She was sent the wrong way to give Arkansas an early lead. Unlike the match in Fayetteville, the Commodores did not let 1 goal become 2 very quickly, nor ever. Wojdelko played a confident, commanding game where she was coming out to claim or punch corners and crosses. She was successfully getting to through balls before attackers. It was her best, most aggressive performance of the year, which is very impressive after making an early mistake on an aggressive decision.

She was far from the only Commodore with a good showing. It was a match where everyone had to do their part to keep a very good team at bay. Then, Peyton Cutshall would rise up to head in a beautifully placed corner kick from Abi Brighton in the 70th minute. Coach Ambrose had said he expected Cutshall to play 10 or 15 minutes, but she fought for 62 minutes. Raegan Kelley was her normal fiery self and flew all over midfield to win tackles and build the attack. Maya Antoine and Ella Shamburger were outdone a few times, but they snuffed out numerous dangerous entry attempts.

The Commodores were playing so well that only 3 subs were used during regulation and overtime. All three were very good. Brooke VanDyck had played 290 minutes on the season and put in a great 72-minute shift. Caroline Betts looked more like herself in the second game without the face shield. She does not look that quick or agile, but she consistently gets around defenders 1v1. Maddie Baker was integral as a wide midfielder in the 4-4-2 Diamond, which Vanderbilt played their best game in so far this season. Baker’s pace and aggressiveness is going to be a weapon when the freshman earns more minutes and gets comfortable in the systems.

When they got to PKs, Vanderbilt’s first kick was sent high by Alex Kerr while Wojdelko went the right way but dove beyond the more central shot and could only get a leg on the ball, which still went into the net. VanDyck did her job without breaking a sweat before it was Arkansas’ turn to put one over the crossbar to level the shootout. Shamburger and Anna Podojil would both score comfortably. Freshman defender Ella Zimmerman was a surprise selection to shoot but looked confident while converting. Wojdelko would again over dive and only get a slight deflection with her leg on the way. Brighton put her chance into the top left corner and would be matched by backup goalkeeper Sierra Cota-Yarde. Vanderbilt answered by sending their own backup for the night Kate Devine to the spot, and she replicated Brighton’s PK. Wojdelko finally was rewarded as she stonewalled Jessica de Filippo to win the shootout.

Vanderbilt’s reward for working so hard to advance is a match against #3 Alabama. The Crimson Tide were 18-1-1 (10-0-0) in the regular season and dismissed #8 seed Mississippi State 2-0 just before the Commodores took on the Razorbacks.

The Crimson Tide have drowned their opponents in a flood of goals with 57 overall and 29 against conference foes. They have only allowed 11 goals total with SEC foes tallying 6 times. Being freescoring on offense and a brickwall on defense is a good blueprint to be an elite team.

SEC Forward of the Year Riley Mattingly Parker is an absolute menace. She has 12 goals (6 conference) and 6 (4) assists. Their best setup person is SEC Midfielder of the Year Felicia Knox with 15 (8) assists and 5 (4) goals. SEC Freshman of the Year Gianna Paul added 6 (3) goals and 5 (3) assists. Yes, the Crimson Tide offense is lethal from all over.

Also, the defense is directed by SEC Defender of the Year Reyna Reyes. The final line of defense is standout goalkeeper McKinley Crone who saved 57 of the 68 shots on goal she faced. Yes, the defense is also elite.

Tonight's match kicks off at 5 PM CT from Pensacola, Florida. SEC Network will have the TV broadcast again with streaming on WatchESPN. The winner moves on to face the winner of Georgia and South Carolina for the SEV Tournament crown. Each of the 4 is also looking to improve their resumè for NCAA Tournament seeding.