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Soccer Position Previews: Midfielders

There are three obvious starters and unproven potential around them.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Abi Brighton (33) will need to put her talents on full display this season for Vanderbilt to reach their potential.
Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The next line on the menu is midfield. The players tasked with creating the balance between attack and defense will be without the best point to their spear with the departure of Raegan Kelley. Kelley had originally not planned on using her COVID eligibility year last season then played low level semi-pro soccer and realized she was not ready to be away from the competitive world. She re-joined the team and was the driving force. Kelley’s 8 goals and 10 assists were both tops of the team. The goal tally was 2 clear of the next Commodore while the assists were double second.

For all the questions about how the overall formation might look, it is very safe to assume the midfield will include a trio of central midfielders. Since it will come up in my descriptions of each players deployment options, there are some basic terms to know. A holding mid is going to stay in front of the defensive line and be the one tasked with breaking up any opposing counter attacks before they get too dangerous while being an option for resetting the attack. A box-to-box midfielder is going to get up and down the field to impact play in both attack and defense. An attacking mid is going to have less responsibility in defense while working just behind, or even overlapping, striker(s). There are sub-archetypes for each that we may get into in future pieces as the season unfolds.

My assumption of a trio of central midfielders also leaves open the roles in that trio. We may see a double pivot of two holding mids with an attacking mid where one holding midfielder will be allowed to leak into the attack after possession is secure. There is also a single pivot option using one of each type. Or something like a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 could even have one holding mid and two box-to-box mids, where the one fully joining the attack will vary. The single or double pivot are the most likely options based on Coach Ambrose’s history and the expected starting trio.

The replacement for Raegan Kelley is Amber Nguyen. Nguyen is a very quick and shifty player who likes to have the ball at her feet. She may not have shown the passing acumen or deadly finishing of Kelley, but #11 in Black and Gold is a handful to track and contain. She has often been forced into wider areas by the stranglehold Kelley had on the CAM (Central Attacking Mid) spot, but Nguyen logged minutes as both a box-to-box and attacking mid last season. She is better higher up the field but does hunt down opposing players in possession. The new role should see a good uptick from her 3 goals and 2 assists last season as talent meets opportunity.

The name that should be written in Sharpie on the lineup is Abi Brighton. Brighton played 1682 minutes last season, which was third on the team behind Shamburger and Antoine and 2 minutes more than Kelley. Brighton might be the most talented player on the roster and is grossly underrated by what little media coverage does exist. She cracked the lineup as a freshman in a holding role, with the shocking revelation from Coach Ambrose that she had not played that role before (or at least recently) in her career. She looked incredibly natural with precision tackling and fantastic instincts. The rise of some young holding mids has allowed her to shift into a box-to-box role where her attacking and defensive skills can both be on display. Brighton has the ability to hit long distance lightning bolts and has appeared on SportsCenter’s Top 10 at least twice, if not three times, for her wonder goals as a Commodore.

The second consecutive freshman midfielder to give Brighton the freedom to join the attack more often is Hannah McLaughlin. After Quinn Cornog was an SEC All-Freshman performer in 2021 before transferring home to Texas A&M, McLaughlin burst onto the scene with her own SEC All-Freshman showing. The newcomer was fifth on the team with 1,603 minutes while starting 15 matches and appearing in all 21 contests. McLaughlin is exceptionally calm in possession and defends intelligently, rarely getting caught out of position or off guard. She also flashed the technique and power to shoot from distance a few times as she put 11 of her 25 shots on target, including a trio of goals. One goal was a back-post tap in, but it was also a game-winner in the 7th minute against Mississippi State. Having the calmness to put that ball away is impressive for a freshman.

That trio gives Vanderbilt a very good group of starters with skill sets that mesh almost perfectly. Depth may be an issue though. The other 5 midfielders have a combined 24 appearance and 6 starts, all by Mia Castillo. Castillo started 6 times and played in 9 others as a freshman at San Diego before transferring to West End. Her 177 minutes across 9 matches is not a to assess. She did not play more than 15 minutes in any SEC contest. If I had to guess, she will fill Brighton’s spot if anyone needs to rotate for an injury or breather. Of course, she may well be overtaken by one of the freshman or a presumably healthy Ally Bolig.

Bolig missed the entire 2022 season with an injury according to the Vanderbilt website. I am not sure if that was previously known. The assessment of her by Associate Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Ken Masuhr in last year’s signing class announcement was about her elite intelligence and aerial dominance as a center back or holding mid, which sounds a lot like McLaughlin. Interchangeable pieces are always useful.

Melania Fullerton is the first (alphabetically) of the freshman. Fullerton appeared for Grenada’s U17 squad in the 2016 CONCACAF (North American and Caribbean Federation) championships. She would have been 11 or 12 if my math (18 or 19 as an incoming freshman in 2023 minus 7 years to 2016) is right. She won a silver medal for the U15 version of the same tournament in 2018 before appearing for Grenada’s senior squad in an attempt to qualify for the Women’s World Cup in 2022. In this season’s signing class breakdown, Coach Masuhr mentions Kelley but describes her ability to both tackle and be an engine. She may appear anywhere in midfield.

Courtney Jones is an early enrollee, so she got to go on the international trip with the team. She was part of ECNL (a collection of “elite” club soccer teams) regional teams and national camps. Her blurb talks about her passes in the attack.

Giavana Liberto is the third freshman midfielder. She collected a trophy case full of All-____ honors including All-State. Liberto was also All-Conference for the ECNL. Goal scoring and versatility are her calling cards.

Frankly, I have next to nothing to go on for the freshmen until I see them on the field myself. There are really only 2 recruiting rankings for college soccer, and both are behind a paywall. Vanderbilt has been posting some info to get to know the players, and my first takeaway was noticing how all 6 (there are 3 freshmen attackers) look like athletes. Sometimes freshmen will look like thin or like they have not had access to elite training facilities. They all look to have taken full advantage of whatever training programs were available and like they can physically contribute. It will be down to whether their mental and technical aspects can catch up to the college game quickly enough to find minutes. From their accolades, it seems like they could get involved, but it will be hard to wrestle playing time from Nguyen, Brighton, and McLaughlin.

Of course, I only talked about a central midfield trio. It gets interesting if there are wide midfield positions to field, though I think those spots probably get filled by attackers in a 4-1-4-1 or by an attacker and defender in a 3-5-2. The more I look at this team the more excited I get, with the obvious caveat that there are several important spots to fill. On paper, there is the talent to collectively fill the gaps. It just depends on if they can take it from the class to the grass.