The position group with the most to prove is the last one to be previewed. Raegan Kelley was an attacking midfielder asked to play as a forward some, and she led the team in goals with 8. The team will be much better with her able to stay as the spear from midfield instead of as a forward. She instinctively wants to play too deep and help link the play between defenders or deeper midfielders to the forwards. She is excellent at doing so then bursting forward as a 2nd or 3rd runner that defenders have to pick up on the fly. Four more goals came from Madison Elwell who played some as a winger but was mostly a wide midfielder.
Among the true forwards, Peyton Cutshall and Alex Kerr tied with Elwell at 4 goals apiece. Kerr played limited (439) minutes to be the 13th most used player. She has seemed to lack that ability to dynamically impact a game though. I would not expect her to keep that scoring rate, or anything near it, going with more minutes. Cutshall is a good target forward, but her mobility is clearly limited by her previous injury that cost her the back half of the 2019 season and all of the fall season in 2020. Technically and tactically, she is very good, but she does need a faster complement if playing as a pair in a 3-5-2. In a 4-3-3, she can do the job as the central striker very well, especially with Kelley’s runs from underneath, as long as the wingers can cause trouble on the flanks and get in useful crosses.
A talented but still developing group of sophomores could step up, but it remains to be seen who will and how they will be deployed. Rachel Deresky got the next most minutes behind Cutshall and Kerr at 427 with appearances in all but one contest but also only one start. She scored the opening goal against MTSU in a 2-1 loss with assists in the Southern Illinois and Texas A&M matches. Her speed showed up, but her dangerous moments where a bit limited by playing wide. I would like to see her more centrally potentially. Hillary Schroeder chipped in a pair of goals with one coming against Southern Illinois and another against Texas A&M. She played a scant 153 minutes, but she showed some flashes of speed, too. I think Schroeder is a player that can take defenders on though while Deresky looked more primed for success running onto through balls. She seems more comfortable on the wing but did not get to play centrally much if at all. Addie Porter played 3 fewer minutes than Schroeder without recording any stats other than 4 shot attempts with 1 being on target. She was a feisty winger though and played part of the season with a face shield, but my memory is not good enough to remember when it appeared. Her sparse minutes also mean her missing a game was not always due to injury.
Side note: I owe Addie an apology for referring to her as “Abbie” in the two articles she was mentioned in last season. I did get her name right in the position preview last season.
The player who technically falls into the above group by eligibility but is a year older might be the player whose improvement I am most interested to see. Sophia Gorski played in the first 10 contests and started 7 of them before an injury ended her season prematurely. She did not score and had only a single assist, so my excitement may be for naught. I want to see her inside though. Pair her with Cutshall, and I think the goals will come. Or play her as the lone striker in a 4-3-3. Gorski is fast and makes really good runs off the ball. Give her movement options by playing her centrally instead of on wing.
An odd addition to the forward group is Tina Bruni. She was mostly a right back last season. She did punish a poor clearance by Missouri by blasting it into the net from 25 yards out. I just do not see her as a forward, but the defense is stout enough it could just be about adding to spot competition on the wings.
Speaking of competition, two transfers and a freshman are joining the mix for playing time up top. Graduate transfer Olivia Stone will have one or two year(s) to play at Vanderbilt after 4 years at Northwestern. She did not see the field in 2018 though, so she may have that year plus the COVID year of eligibility left. She started 38 games and appeared in 47 contests total. Stone scored 3 goals (all in 2020) and had 6 assists. The likelihood of her being an impact player is slim, so I would not expect her to start, unlike some of the other transfers.
The second transfer should have three seasons of eligibility left. Francesca Yanchuk joins the Commodores after a freshman campaign as a Villanova Wildcat. She appeared in 17 of Villanova’s 18 matches with 14 starts. Her only contribution to the scoresheet was an assist, but she took 34 shots with 14 being on frame. All I can glean from that is she does not lack confidence and will take chances if she gets a sight of goal. This team could use that mentality. It pulls defenders because they know any tiny bit of space will result in an attempt. As she develops, attempts should start to be more accurate then goals should follow. It will be interesting to see how or if she cracks the rotation.
Lastly, Caroline Betts might be the crown jewel in the recruiting class and hails from CPA in Nashville. In 2020, she raked in the Gatorade Soccer Player of the Year for Tennessee, the Tennessean High School Sports Award Female Soccer Player of the Year and USA Today’s Tennessee Female Soccer Player of the Year. She scored 201 goals and 110 assists during her high school career. She scored 38 goals and had 30 assists in 18 matches during the award-winning 2020 season. She had 7 straight hat tricks as a sophomore in 2019. I have no more real information, so I am just going to move on before I make some wildly optimistic statements about what kind of player Vanderbilt gets in Betts.
With so many options and so little in-game success, it is hard to feel confident on predicting starters. It will probably be Cutshall and Kerr in a 3-5-2. The 4-3-3 is probably Schroeder and Gorski on the wings with Cutshall or Kerr through the middle. I would go with Cutshall and Gorski in a 3-5-2 and Schroeder-Gorski-Deresky left to right across the top in a 4-3-3. In fact, I think that may be my favorite lineup option even if I prefer the 3-5-2.
Predictions for Tonight’s Exhibition
The Commodores open the two-match preseason slate tonight with UAB coming to West End at 6 PM. They are giving away schedule posters. I will be there. Coach Darren Ambrose likes to tinker, and he even started last season with an odd 4-4-2 using a narrow diamond midfield. It never returned over the rest of the season. The first lineup we see may not be where he expects to be opening night. Still, I am going to take a swing at predicting. My guess at Coach Ambrose’s starting lineup is a 4-3-3 with Devine in goal, Hetzel-Shamburger-Antoine-Aidoo across the back, Brighton-Castillo holding mids, Kelley attacking mid, and Schroeder-Cutshall-Gorski across the top. My preferred 4-3-3 would swap Gorski to striker and have Deresky as the right wing or even leave Gorski RW and have Deresky at striker. I would be interested to see Nguyen beside Brighton, too, which I never even mentioned.
Either way, Vanderbilt will take the field tonight. I will drop some thoughts as the game unfolds, but I am not sure of any way to watch it from home. If an option is given, it will be posted in the comments for sure. A fuller recap of the game will be up Saturday morning before the second exhibition at Alabama, which I will not attend.