The soccer program under Darren Ambrose has quietly become a strong contender in the SEC. Ambrose’s first season in 2016 was Vanderbilt’s first winning season (9-8-4) since 2009 and included a trip to the SEC Tournament Championship Game. The 2017 campaign had more milestones with a 13-7-2 (6-3-1) record that tallied the most wins by Vanderbilt since 2005 and a first round upset of Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament was the first Commodore win in the NCAAT since 1998. In 2018, the tremendous 16-4-1 (8-1-1) record did not tell the full story as Ambrose’s tenure notched more milestones, including winning the SEC East for the first time since 1994 and hosting an NCAA tournament match for the first time since 2005. The Vanderbilt Commodores took a very slight step back in 2019. Last season, the Commodores were 14-5-2 (6-3-1). They fell to eventual champions South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament and tied with Clemson to open the NCAA tournament but failed to advance after losing the penalty shootout. If you are curious, yes, the official way to record the result is a draw with penalties only deciding who advances not a winner of the match, technically.
The first question when going from one season to another should always be about departures. Possibly the most impactful loss is the goalkeeper tandem. Taiana Tolleson and Lauren Demarchi formed a true 1-2 punch in net. As a keeper myself and now a goalkeeper coach, I cannot imagine splitting time like these two did, but they pulled it off masterfully. Demarchi started 19 of the 21 games played and appeared in all of them. Tolleson only had 2 starts but appeared in 20 games. The pair split games by half, but the NCAA’s extra time (overtime) rules meant Tolleson played 30 more minutes over the course of the season.
The other two big losses are a pair of players tied for 6th most appearances by a Commodore soccer player at 83 games. Grace Jackson started every single game of her career from the day she stepped onto campus. Nia Dorsey did not start them all, but she appeared in every one. Jackson was the engine in midfield. She only had 1 goal and 2 assists last season, but her role was to be the player the attack built through before moving to other dangerous players further up the pitch. Dorsey was an eraser defensively who often fixed her teammates’ mistakes. She also contributed a goal and 3 assists.
Continuing the theme of pairs, two forwards have graduated. Kaylann Boyd chipped in a goal and an assit over 15 appearances, 7 of which were starts. Her role diminished last season after starting all 21 games in 2018, so she was likely replaced before ever leaving campus, though I do not know which player most often took her place in the lineup when comparing 2018 to 2019. Hannon Eberts was a feel-good story when she made her season debut on October 21 and scored because she had taken 362 days to recover from a torn ACL suffered the previous season. That goal proved to be her only scoring contribution of the season in 7 appearances.
Those six players take 4 goals and 6 assists with them, but the positive is that there is plenty of firepower still available to Ambrose. The team’s leading scorer and resident All-American Haley Hopkins scored 13 goals to pace the team by 8 goals while also tallying 4 assists. The most creative and dangerous midfielder, Madison Elwell, stays, too. Elwell had 10 assists and scored a lone goal last season. Overall, 32 of 36 goals scored were from returning players as were 31 of 37 assists. No, I do not know how the team managed to be credited with more assists tan goals since the secondary assist is not recorded, unlike in hockey. Having that much production returning is a good sign.
The other SEC coaches have high expectations for the Commodores, too. Vanderbilt was picked to finish 4th in the conference. Ambrose’s squad also had 5 players named to the SEC Preseason Watch List, which I assume was selected instead of the typical first-, second-, and third-team accolades due to the loss of the spring season for evaluation. The 5 selections were tied for the most in the conference with Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Texas A&M. Hopkins and Elwell were the obvious members and were joined by Leila Azari, Raegan Kelly, and Ella Shamburger. Azari had 3 goals and 4 assists, which placed her T-3rd and T-2nd in those categories respectively, while playing (all starts) 16 games last season. She is an attacking midfielder sometimes used as a forward. Kelly had 3 goals and 2 assists while starting in midfield for every game. Shamburger is a fantastic defender who started all 21 games while leading the team in minutes played for the second straight season. She managed 3 assists and was named to the All-SEC Second team.
With all of that ability on the field, Coach Ambrose has a lot of options tactically. The calling card has been the defense. Defenders like Dorsey and Shamburger have typically limited the opposing attack’s chances, and the goalkeepers have denied most of what gets through to them. Last season, the formation was primarily built on 3 defenders with 4 or 5 midfielders and, thus, 3 or 2 forwards. When the other team has possession, Ambrose expects his team to get very compact with 9 of the 10 outfield players typically getting behind the ball (aka between the ball and the goal) while leaving Hopkins as an outlet when possession is regained. However, things change drastically once the Commodores have the ball. They will use the counterattack via Hopkins’s speed and strength one-on-one, but the real fun is watching what happens when they possess the ball for long stretches. Coach Ambrose gives his defenders and midfielders a lot of freedom to get forward and join the attack, sometimes having only 2 defenders staying back in case of a turnover. In those moments, the intelligence and athleticism of Shamburger and her defensive partners will be paramount. Those attributes the Commodore defenders have possessed in the past, and still do, have allowed for this system to work so well.
The schedule has been shortened to just 8 SEC games for some reason. I cannot hazard any guess as to what might be causing that change. None at all. The world is perfectly normal right now. Anyway, the season starts today at 2 PM when Vanderbilt hosts Kentucky. Next Sunday, September 27, the Commodores go to Knoxville for the rivalry match. The following Saturday Vanderbilt breaks the rules and will face a Big XII school when they head to Columbia, Missouri to face the Yankee Tigers. The Lady Cocks come to Nashville October 11. The closing 4 games alternate home and away with at Florida on October 18, hosting Georgia October 25, at LSU October 30, and ends with Senior Night hosting Ole Miss November 7.
Today’s opponent, the Kentucky Wildcats, are coming off a 6-10-3 (1-8-1). They did manage to take Vanderbilt to overtime last season before dropping the contest 1-0 in the first overtime. The Wildcats also return their most important players with only two seniors having graduated. Both were role players but not the most important contributors. This is a contest that Vanderbilt will expect to win, but being the first game of a very strange season after a bizarre offseason could make things tricky against a side who should also be comfortable due to continuity. You can see the game in a few minutes at 2 PM Central time on the SEC Network.