The crowd pleasers are the final piece of the soccer puzzle to be revealed. Vanderbilt relied a lot on midfielder Raegan Kelley while searching for the right forward combinations last season. One injury midway through the season caused even more problems. The losses of Alex Kerr (6G 1A) and Peyton Cutshall (5G 1A) are important. The pair had the top two totals in minutes played by forwards last season at 925 and 989, respectively. The minute totals indicate how much searching was done since Cutshall was the only forward to play more than 50% of the team’s minutes, and she was only at 51%.
The good news is that Vanderbilt’s most efficient scorer is back, and she is healthy after an injury finished her season after only 10 matches. Rachel Deresky had 5 goals and 3 assists in just 532 minutes of action. She scored a goal every 106.4 minutes and contributed to a goal once every 66.5 minutes. She was the tops in both category with Kerr (154.2 Min/G) and Kelley (93.3 Min/GC) in second for comparison. She showed serious opportunism by scoring the 5 goals on only 15 shot attempts. Deresky brings high end speed and athleticism that was otherwise lacking on the team last season while also being smart enough to use her physical traits at the right times in the right ways. She is probably better as a winger or at least in a striker pairing, but I think Deresky would do just fine as a lone striker.
The name with the next highest likelihood of making the starting XI is Caroline Betts. As a freshman, Betts was only credited with 1 goal and 1 assist, which seems incorrect, but I have no proof otherwise. The sophomore out of CPA here in Nashville flashed goal scoring ability with numerous shots that required heroic saves and blocks from opposing players or clanged off the woodwork. Without being exceptionally fast, Betts often made defenders look foolish with deception and footwork. A facial injury midseason required a face mask that seemed to derail her adjustment to the college game. I fully expect number 5 to be a consistent contributor to the scoresheet. She may be the best outright striker of the returners even though her freshman deployment was mostly in wide areas.
Now, we get into the players where tactics come into play along with exposure being limited enough that picking one over the other is not feasible. There are 4 returners, 1 transfer, and 3 freshmen in this group. They will be discussed, within those groups, in alphabetical order.
Senior Tina Bruni played 333 minutes last season and 405 the year before. She scored once each season with an assist in 2022 and two assists in 2021. She works hard and has some pace. She has exclusively been used in wide areas and has, while listed as a forward, been used at RB and RM, too. I would expect her usage stays about the same or may even decrease depending on the freshman contributions. Or, with only 5 defenders on the roster, she may be shifted back as a set of fresh legs.
Senior Sophia Gorski is a player I keep expecting to break out. She started 7 games in 2021, including the final four of her season before an injury ended it in late September. Gorski has the athleticism to be trouble for any defender, and she has scored some very impressive goals in the last two preseasons. Identifying the right run to get into the most dangerous and available positions for her teammates has been holding her back. Gorski can be a striker or winger.
Junior Addie Porter is energy. She did not get on the field as much as I would have expected last season, but she scored once and had a single assist in just 295 minutes. Funnily enough that ranked her fifth best in Min/G behind Deresky, Kerr, Kelley, and Cutshall and fourth in Min/GC behind all but Cutshall. If I had to pick one of the returners besides Deresky and Betts to make a major impact up top, it would be Porter.
Junior Francesca Yanchuk only played 168 minutes over 10 matches after transferring in from Villanova. She stayed on the flanks, either as a winger or wide midfielder, in her limited time. Nothing really stood out either way as particularly good or bad. I would be surprised if she saw a big increase in playing time, barring injuries, but Yanchuk provides reliable minutes as a substitute. She does not try to overplay the game and keeps within her own skillset. That idea might seem silly, but substitutes can sometimes try to do too much and cause unnecessary and dangerous turnovers by trying to make a splash. Yanchuk just does the job she was put on the field to do.
The new transfer, Jada Konte, has had a great resource to prepare for this season under Coach Ambrose and staff. Her sister Myra Konte was a standout defender on West End from 2017-2020. Jada was named to a postseason team each year at UConn. She was All-Big East Freshman in 2020, All-Big East Second Team in 2021, and All-Big East First Team in 2022. The Huskies struggled a bit to score, as Konte was second on the team the last two season with 5 goals in 2022 and 4 goals in 2021. If she has her sister’s speed, it would be a nice boost. And maybe playing in the South will defrost the scoring touch.
Again, with only the information from Vanderbilt to form any opinion, the trio of freshmen is basically unknown. Nyela Calnek seems like the speedster of the bunch, as was a state finalist in Florida for the 400 meters. She was also named to the US Youth Soccer National Best XI.
Ella Eggleston was on Texas’s Olympic Development Program team, which is pretty impressive since Texas has a strong soccer culture. Eggleston has also been part of US Youth National Teams, though I cannot find what age groups. Obviously, her talent has been recognized often along the way.
Sydney Watts is probably the gem of the group though. She was Gatorade Player of the Year for Kansas the last two seasons. Watts was also named to the United States Soccer Coaches High School All-American team both seasons. Playing in 5A, Watts scored 37 goals and tallied 87 points (2 points for a goal and 1 for an assist) which were both season records. To me, this sounds a lot like the Caroline Betts profile. If Vanderbilt has another Betts in the fold, the attack should be in very good hands the next few seasons.
On the whole, the forward group is the one with the least certainty, but there are a lot of different ways they can be successful based on the different skillsets and number of players who have shown flashes but either been inconsistent or lack one specific piece to be very effective. I want to manage expectations for the freshmen, but I am having a hard time not expecting one or two of them from crashing onto the scene with a flair for the dramatic.
The Dores take the field Monday in Birmingham for their first of two preseason friendlies. I doubt there will be anything to take from the contest since it will almost certainly not be streamed. Even the stats feed will probably be lackluster. I am planning on attending the second exhibition next Saturday when Vanderbilt hosts Memphis.