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Soccer Preview and Game Thread: Evansville

The season starts with a road trip to the birth state of Commodore legend Jay Cutler.

Syndication: Tallahassee
Whether CAM or ST, Raegan Kelley is going to be feisty.
Joe Rondone/Democrat,

Vanderbilt kicks off the 2022-23 athletic year tonight. The Commodores’ soccer team is in Evansville, Indiana, tonight to take on the Purple Aces at 7 PM with a stream available via ESPN+! Coach Darren Ambrose’s squad is coming off a 2-match fall preseason slate that consisted of a 0-0 draw at home against UAB and a 3-1 loss at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Neither match was televised or streamed, but the home contest was open to the public. Technically, both matches were, but AoG did not have a representative in Tuscaloosa to attend the second.

The box score is available for the match with the Crimson Tide. It reveals the final score was probably a fair representation of the run of play. Alabama took more shots(11 to 5), put more shots on goal (6 to 2), and had more corners (5 to 2) than Vanderbilt. The Commodores committed 15 fouls to the Tide’s 10, which also suggests Vanderbilt spent more of the game without the ball if the shot totals were not enough. Alabama scored in the 11th, 24th, and 52nd minutes. Alex Kerr tallied for the Dores in the 86th minute.

The starters in Black and Gold were similar to the first exhibition. The full lineup was, with presumed positions, Sara Wojdelko in goal with Abena Aidoo, Ella Shamburger, and Maya Antoine at defense. The midfield would be Mia Castillo and Abi Brighton holding with Alex Wagner at left mid and Amber Nguyen at right mid while Brooke VanDyck is an attacking midfielder. Raegan Kelley and Alex Kerr lead the attack. VanDyck in for Tina Bruni was the only difference, but it was probably Nguyen moving to Bruni’s right mid spot with VanDyck taking the CAM role.

Minutes played suggest 5 names are all but inked onto the team sheet. Aidoo and Shamburger played all 90 minutes. The midfield trio of Brighton, Castillo, and Kelley were on the pitch for 80, 75, and 72 minutes, respectively. Wagner and Antoine both got just over 2/3 of the match at 64 and 62 minutes. Antoine fits more into that first 5 group, so I hope it was not an injury-enforced replacement. Or a bad showing after her superb one against UAB. Non-starter Rachel Deresky was 8th on the team at 56 minutes while Kerr was only in for 29 minutes. VanDyck also only logged 24 minutes, which his odd after her first showing for Vanderbilt.

The first takeaway is that I feel pretty good guessing 8 of the starters, though I might not know positions for Nguyen (CAM/RM) or Kelley (ST/CAM). A 9th spot I would have bet serious money had no controversy might, with Wojdelko starting both exhibitions. Devine not starting would surprise me, but it may well happen for reasons only the coaches have seen in training. To be clear, I have not seen Wojdelko do anything to make me doubt her. Devine was just excellent last season and has been in her time from both exhibitions. I also think the 3-5-2 will be the formation of choice unless there are serious early season struggles that force a change in tactics.

The good news is Vanderbilt will take a step back in competition for their first official match. The Evansville Purple Aces only played 1 pre-season friendly and lost 4-0 to the St. Louis Billikens. They are coming of a 7-5-7 (2-3-3) 2021 season that ended with a 4-0 loss in the MVC Tournament Championship. The 6-team tournament saw the 6th seeded Purple Aces advance 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw with 3-seed Indiana State then beat 2-seed Valparaiso 2-1 via a 104th minute golden goal.

The MVC’s coaches tabbed Evansville to finish 5th in the 11 team conference. Danger woman Emily Ormson was named to the All-MVC Preseason team after being a 1st Team All-MVC selection after last season. She scored 7 goals and had 1 assist in 2021. The Purple Aces return 21 players from last year and return 72.7% (16/22) of their goals but only 40% (8/20) of their assists. For comparison, Vanderbilt returns 80.6% (25/31) of their goals and 65.7% (23/35) of their assists. The significantly higher total for Vanderbilt should also be noted.

Evansville’s offensive production losses were Alex Eyler (2 goals and team-best 6 assists), Jayme-Lee Hunter (1 goal and 4 assists), Emily Wolak (1 goal and 2 assists), and Emily Olson (2 goals). Nicole Benati is the only returner with multiple assists after being credited with 3 helpers. The returning multi-goal gals are Ormson, Emilie Hill (3), Abby Phelps (2), and Monique Landrum (2).

In goal, Evansville is replacing primary starter Michaela Till. Till accounted for all but 2 starts last season. Lauren Fischer who started 1 of those 2 also departed which leaves Georgia Katsonouri as the lone goalkeeper with time played for this squad. Sophomore Sophie Lindner got the start against St. Louis. She was at Evansville but did not play in 2021.

Evansville’s soccer Twitter account did list the starting lineup for their exhibition with a tactical (formation) layout. They were shown in a 4-1-4-1 with Ormson leading the way. For Vanderbilt’s 3-5-2 that can be a bit of trouble. Yes, it is 1 forward on 3 defenders on the face, but what happens is midfielders will make runs to join the Purple Aces’ attack if given the chance. Then the Vanderbilt defenders have to make on the fly pickups to ensure everyone is marked (defended). The Commodore wide midfielders can help with this by being aggressive getting forward and trying to force Evansville to decide how they track everyone. If they task the outside backs (defenders) with tracking Vanderbilt’s wide midfielders, it will leave 2 Commodore forwards against 2 Purple Aces center backs while Vanderbilt’s CAM is 1-on-1 with a defensive mid. Most likely, the Evansville wide midfielders will be asked to track back some.

It may seem elementary for soccer in general, but the 3-5-2 is at its best when the team employing it can possess the ball for long stretches. The entire concept is based on maintaining possession long enough for the wide midfielders to get forward while one of your holding mids can leak into the attack. On a turnover, the defensive mid wants to breakup any outlet passes the opposition attempts while the 3 CBs give a strong protection from a direct counterattack through the middle, especially when they possess the pace of Ella Shamburger and Maya Antoine.

Evansville may be the weakest test of the three opponents so far, but this is a real match. The substitutions will be more reflective of what Coach Ambrose wants to do as opposed to just giving different players minutes to show their development. The goalkeeper situation is also a fun bit of intrigue. And we can all watch this one together (if you have ESPN+)!

I will edit this to add the starting lineup as it comes available.