In the South, the calendar flips to August and creates an upswell in excitement for college athletics. Most of the focus is on college football as their fall camps get under way. They are not the first sport to start competition though, not even when a football team plays “Week 0” as Vanderbilt will. No, the first team competition of the fall is soccer.
The Commodores will have their first pre-season exhibition at home on August 8th against Alabama-Birmingham. They then travel to Tuscaloosa for a second and final tune up against conference foe Alabama on August 13th. The Dores and Tide will not play during the regular season, as you would expect when scheduling a pre-season friendly. Regular season play will follow with a two-match Indiana road trip to Evansville August 18th and Purdue August 21st. The first home contest is August 25th against Western Kentucky. Four more non-conference matchups follow before SEC play starts at home against LSU September 18th.
Vanderbilt is coming off a mildly disappointing 8-8-3 (5-4-1) season that ended in the first round of the SEC Tournament with a 1-1 draw where Florida advanced on penalty kicks. That team struggled to find consistent goal scoring and squandered some opportunities. Thirteen players off that roster are gone with the most notable being Madi Elwell (4th most minutes among outfield players), Madi Allen (8th), Quinn Cornog (10th), and Madiya Harriot (12th).
Elwell is clearly the biggest loss having been tied with 3 other Dores for 2nd in goals scored with 4 and leading in assists with 9. She was drafted 15th overall in the NWSL Draft by the Washington Spirit. Raegan Kelley scored 8 goals to lead that category, and Amber Nguyen’s 5 assists were second best. Allen tallied a goal while being a prominent member of the midfield, mostly in a defensive role. Cornog, also mostly deployed as a defensive midfielder, was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team on the back of a goal and 2 assists then transferred to Texas A&M, which is closer to her hometown of Dallas. Harriott had an injury-hampered final season of eligibility with one assist as a fullback.
Eleven new Commodores join the program to replace the thirteen outgoing. Six freshmen are complemented with some veteran presence by five transfers. We dive into more about the newcomers as we get to their position groups. The freshman class was Top 25 according to TopDrawerSoccer.com, but the exact ranking is hidden behind a paywall. This time last year, Vanderbilt had filled in the freshmen bios with their TDS rankings as recruits. No such luck, so I will have little to nothing to say about the freshmen.
The transfers bring some eligibility, too. Only Abena Aidoo (Cal) and Brooke VanDyck (Notre Dame) have a single year to play. Olivia Stone (Northwestern) should have 2 seasons available on West End due to a COVID year. Francesca Yanchuk (Villanova) and Mia Castillo (San Diego) will have 3 years of eligibility left after transferring their freshman seasons. I believe all of the transfers are immediately eligible.
The most important position gets the first look. It is the simplest position to discuss, too. No matter the formation, there will only be one goalkeeper on the field, and it will be Kate Devine. Devine took the reigns at the end of the 2020 season when she started the NCAA Tournament bout with Penn State. She started all 19 matches in 2021 and only was not on the field for 50 minutes the entire campaign. Devine made 64 saves while allowing 21 for 0.753 Save Percentage. She held the opposing team scoreless 4 times. Devine is a very good shot stopper, solid with her feet, and very decisive. She rarely makes a mistake, with only one or two moments that could be attributed to something she did wrong last season.
Sophomore Sara Wojdelko will compete with Freshman Alexa Gianoplus for the backup role. Wojdelko did not see the field during her freshman season. Sophie Guilmette took up all 50 minutes Devine did not play, but I could not find her transfer destination.
The solidarity continues for the next line up the field. Devine should be used to seeing Ella Shamburger and Maya Antoine in front of her, since that duo was the center back pairing (or two of a back three) to start every game last season. Unfortunately for the 2021 squad, two expected starters in Madiya Harriott and Myra Konte dealt with injuries last season. Konte did not play at all, and Harriott was limited to 9 games played with 7 starts. Ava Hetzel, a COVID freshman transfer from Arizona, stepped in to start all 19 games and played the 5th most minutes on the team. Second-year Commodore Alex Wagner also took on a new role as a fullback after playing mostly as a wide midfielder in her first year on campus. She racked up the 7th most minutes on the team.
Incoming transfer Abena Aidoo started 56 of 69 games played in 4 years at Cal. She was top 5 in minutes played for the Golden Bears during 3 of those seasons. It is unclear whether she is primarily a center back or outside back. I would expect that she will have a prominent role no matter whether Coach Ambrose deploys a 3-back or 4-back system. Hetzel was occasionally used as a 3rd center back last season, so that option is still there. My guess is that it will be a back 4 with Hetzel and Aidoo as the outside backs though.
The two freshmen will likely only see late game action. Even if they are highly rated recruits, the existing Commodore lineup would be very hard to crack. That task is made even harder by the transfer addition of Aidoo. If they are contributing for non-injury reasons, it will almost certainly be a pleasant and very promising surprise.
These two position groups anchored Vanderbilt to an SEC-best goals against total in SEC play of 8. Yes, Vanderbilt only allowed 8 goals in 10 regular season conference tilts. At times, Ambrose will employ tactics that are excessively conservative which helps keep the goals against down, but the talent at goalkeeper and defender should do the opposite. The Commodores should feel comfortable pushing numbers forward and taking some risks when you have two All-SEC caliber CBs and a goalkeeper of Devine’s quality behind them. The outside backs or third center back will also be filled by very capable player(s).
As always, if you have tactical, formational, or any other questions, ask away. The previews are a great place to dive into the nuances since they are just about what Vanderbilt has done or might do in the upcoming season. If you are new to soccer, some of the terminology and concepts can be a bit odd or even just different based on the person speaking. A common instance would be calling the outside defenders fullbacks or outside backs. The terms are interchangeable. We will get to some of the technicalities in terminology in the next preview where we tackle the midfielders.