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Soccer Preview and Gamethread: Chattanooga

Let’s get the 2023 party started!

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Maya Antoine needs to be a rock at the back for Vanderbilt as the defense evolves around her.
Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The long national nightmare is over. College sports are officially back. Women’s soccer kicks off the 2023-24 academic year sports schedule unless I missed something. Maybe parlagi knows when piss for distance season starts. I am sure Stanford is the national champion favorite this year with their conference crumbling around them.

For the Commodores, the season starts at home with in-state foe Chattanooga. The most respectable University of Tennessee campus presents an interesting foe for Vanderbilt. As previewed in the offseason, Vanderbilt has a lot of new pieces, or ones facing increased responsibility, in the forward and defensive lines. The Mocs face even worse uncertainty with the top 3 defenders in terms of minutes played last season gone. Sophomore goalkeeper Caroline Ekern did start all but 2 games last season, so the inexperienced defenders have an experienced and talented backstop. The UTC attack returns their Top 4 goal scorers and every player with multiple assists. In total, the scorer of 15 of the 18 goals credited to a player (1 listed as “team”) will return along with every player who recorded multiple assists, which accounts for 15 of the 16 assists. Mackenzie Smith (5G 3A), Caroline Richvalsky (3G 3A), Birna Johannsdottir (2G 5A), and Salinas Carissa (3G 2A) are the most likely threats, but you might be noticing the low totals.

Chattanooga played some really boring matches last season. In a 8-5-5 (5-1-3) campaign, the average score was 1.06-1.11 in favor of the Mocs’ opponents. A 6-0 loss at Alabama slanted those numbers a bit, too. In fact, 10 of the 18 matches involving Chattanooga last season ended 1-1, 1-0 (either way), or 0-0. Vanderbilt only had 5 such final scores in 21 outings.

Coach Ambrose clearly wanted to get a weaker opening night opponent after a couple more middling foes for preseason. There are benefits to that idea. It gives the players a good indication of the teams they should be handily beating before lobbing them a cupcake to start the season off on the right foot. The 2023 Commodores have some work to do based on their showing against Memphis in pre-season. The short version is that they are attempting a pretty complicated tactical setup. The detailed version is going to require going pretty deeply into the soccer tactical weeds, so I will tell you how to watch tonight’s match before diving into the minutaei below for those that are interested.

As always, Vanderbilt soccer matches are free to all. Kickoff is at 7 PM. Tonight is “Back to School” night, so there will be giveaways of pencil pounches and pencils to start your collection. The Vandy United construction may impact your route into campus. If you are not making the trip to West End, the match will be streamed on SECN+. Reminder, SECN+ is free to stream if you have SEC Network in your cable/satellite/streaming package.

Tactical Breakdown

Coach Ambrose has made the interesting decision to switch back to a 3-5-2, or at least that was the deployment against Memphis. The back 3 to start the match was Maddie Baker, Maya Antoine, and Ava Hetzel. Typically, in a back 3, those defenders are not going to be very active in the attack. They stay fairly central and conservative. Hetzel and Baker are both useful as attacking outside backs though, so Vanderbilt is getting a bit tricky. Whoever of those two is on the side nearest the attack is allowed to join. Hannah McLaughlin then drops in from her midfield position to be the third center back. In transition moments, it looks like a back 4 at times and even threw me off for about a minute to start the Memphis match.

That lever action gives the Commodores an extra threat in wide spaces, but it almost completely removes McLaughlin from the attack. It also requires Abi Brighton to stay deeper to fill the space McLaughlin would cover in a typical 3-5-2. The center of midfield goes from being a position of strength in the formation to a weakpoint that is essentially a transition from one flank to the other. It may well flourish, but the adjustment period could result in some bumpy moments, as evidenced by Memphis’s goal Saturday where a bad pass during the transition to attack left too many players going forward and not enough ready to stop the counter attack.

The thought process is obvious, even if it is convoluted. Vanderbilt’s only true CB besides Antoine is sophomore Ella Zimmerman. Zimmerman did very well as a sub, and I would like to see her given a chance in the back 3 to let the tactics be more traditional.

Up the pitch, the chemistry is clearly still a work in progress. The three players who had chances at striker were Rachel Deresky, Addie Porter, and Sophia Gorski. The first two got the start, and they seemed to be too much of the same mind. Too often, both of them were dropped in deeper to receive passes to feet with no option over the top. Gorski was looking to break the back line, especially when a tactical tweak turned it from one CAM (Amber Nguyen for most of the game) behind two forwards to two CAMS (Nguyen and a lot of Courtney Jones but some others, too) behind a lone striker. The two CAM set seemed to further stagnate the attack as it left the lone striker on an island, and none of our forwards have shown the ability to receive a ball to feet and hold play up like Peyton Cutshall could.

It will be interesting to see how the chemistry and tactics develop. The exhibition has me concerned that I will have a lot of the same concerns about Ambrose’s tactics that I normally do. He is a very good coach and generally finds the right buttons to press, but he has also had some head-scratching misses that I think come from trying too hard to do too much with the tactics instead of making small tweaks to help each player.

Also, Alex Wagner should absolutely be starting over Tina Bruni at RM. Wagner is electric with her speed while Bruni is just there. She is not bad but rarely impacts the game either way. Wagner is dynamic in both attack and defense.