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Soccer Preview and Game Thread: Western Kentucky

Home to face the Hilltoppers.

Syndication: Nashville
With USA Today seemingly dumping the Vanderbilt-FSU stash, Kate Devine earns a shoutout for being in command in high school, too.
George Walker IV / The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Commodores host WKU for their home opener tonight at 7 PM CT. The game will be streamed on SEC Network+. If you are confused about ESPN’s streaming offerings, SECN+ is included with your regular cable/satellite/streaming service if it includes SEC Network. They come home having swept the 2-match Indiana trip to start the season. The win over Evansville was comfortable but expected. Beating Purdue, who was coming off a 3-0 win over the #15 Southern California Trojans, is an impressive early season result.

Vanderbilt was not nearly as dominant against the Boilermakers as they were against the Purple Aces, but the win was still deserved. It was not a fluke by any stretch, based on the box score. It should be made clear that the game was streamed on the subscription-required Big Ten Network+, so I was unable to watch and may be misled by the statistics.

The two things that I do know had massive impacts on the outcome were Rachel Deresky’s 78th minute goal and Kate Devine’s 84th minute PK save. Deresky got open between the top of the 18 and the penalty spot. Raegan Kelley found her on the run. Deresky made no mistake sliding the ball by the Purdue goalkeeper along the ground. It was the 2nd goal in as many matches for the sophomore who was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week for her work. Devine had not started against Evansville but was excellent with a couple saves that got the Vandy Soccer Twitter person very excited. The PK save was a great way to cap her performance. The rest of the game appears to have gone well, too, based on the box score.

Vanderbilt (left) slightly outplayed the hosts on paper.

Vanderbilt’s lead in shots and shots on goal is not huge, but they put Purdue under pressure. The possession graphic also shows the Commodores were in possession in the attacking half of the field 30% of the time, which is 27 minutes. Conversely, Purdue’s time on the ball only resulted in 20 minutes time on attack. Final quarter (within 30 yards of opposing goal) was a more decided Vanderbilt advantage at 12 minutes to 8 minutes.

Betts with 50 minutes off the bench.

Coach Ambrose took this game more seriously based on the roster usage. Against Evansville, 23 players got into the game. Only 16 Commodores competed against Purdue. The subs also got 311 of the 900 outfield minutes available at Evansville. The backups’ play was more than cut in half at only 136 minutes. Caroline Betts did up her minutes off the bench from 44 to 50, so the freshman is making a claim to be on the field a lot. She may well be starting soon. Hannah McLaughlin is showing she has the confidence of the coaches to spell Abi Brighton, which can only help Brighton be more impactful. Brighton’s ability to impact a game will only increase if she has extra energy.

Kelley also has an assist streak thanks to setting up both of Deresky’s goals. She is doing her best to tee up teammates and is being rewarded for it so far. Some chemistry does seem to be building between her and Deresky because both goals have come on slashing runs by the scorer with Kelley putting the ball into the best possible place to setup the striker. Opposing teams are going to have to start sliding coverage towards Deresky if the scoring continues, so it will be interesting to see if other options open and can convert.

Coming back to West End means a date with a local foe. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers make the short trip down I-65 to Nashville from Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers are 1-1 on the season after losing 1-0 at Xavier then trouncing Union University 5-0 at home. Their preseason contests were both draws. They went scoreless hosting Murray State until a PK shootout that WKU won 4-2 then saw both teams finish with 2 goals at Austin Peay. The goal scoring explosion was probably nice for the confidence, but the competition leaves questions about whether they can break down better defenders and beat more competent goalkeepers.

Part of the reason for their early struggles could be the losses of Avery Jacobsen, Brina Micheels, MacKenzie Crittenberger, and Sophia Fondren. Jacobsen was T-1st (4) in goals and T-2nd (3) in assists in 2021. Micheels was 3rd (3) in goals and T-2nd (3) in assists. Crittenberger and Fondren scored twice and once, respectively, without assisting. Overall, WKU lost 10 of their 21 goals and 6 of their 14 assists. This is a team looking for new scorers to appear and for the returners to grow. Unfortunately, 3 of those 21 goals came at home against Vanderbilt in a 3-2 OT win for the hosts.

In last year’s battle, Western scored but was quickly answered twice. The first time, Jacobsen converted a 54th minute penalty kick that was awarded in error. Vanderbilt got the next poor call in their favor less than 4 minutes later. Raegan Kelley had the PK saved but pounced to tuck home the rebound. WKU retook the lead after a call on Devine for handing an intentional pass back (that may have deflected off a defender) led to a tap-and-shoot routine from the indirect free kick inside Vanderbilt’s box. Abi Brighton would put a Maddie Elwell cross home with 2:27 to play to re-tie the score. The game-winner came on a PK earned by Katie Erwin and converted by Brina Micheels. Erwin was clued into the official’s tendency to call soft fouls, invited contact, and went down as soon as Maya Antoine got too close for comfort. It should be noted that there might have been some foreshadowing to Kate Devine’s PK-reading ability as she got a hand to both spot kicks in this game even though she kept neither out of the net.

Tonight, Vanderbilt needs another win. Put a stake down on your home turf and avenge last season’s loss. Western is still a low-scoring team in general. Vanderbilt should be, and to this point has been, a very stout defensive team. The Commodores often defend by possessing the ball and keeping it up the field to force opposing teams to retake possession 80+ yards from goal. With Shamburger, Antoine, Aidoo, and Wagner on defense and Brighton holding in front of them, it will be tough for any team to consistently break through that far from goal. I am excited for a night at the Vanderbilt Soccer/Lacrosse Complex before flying out for Hawaii in the morning.