The Commodores showed their steel Thursday as they dominated at home to defeat No. 14 Texas A&M 2-0 after goals from freshmen Nia Dorsey and Jackie Welch.
Vanderbilt dominated possession early in the first half, with a few spells of attacking from the Aggies, but did not seem to threaten the opposition’s goal. Although their first shot on goal came as early as eight minutes into the game, with Kacy Scarpa forcing a stretched save from Danielle Rice after a corner played in on the ground by Lydia Simmons, there was not too much happening in the game.
Recognizing the lack of cutting edge in their attack about halfway through the half, second-year head coach Darren Ambrose switched Dorsey and Brook Colangelo on the flanks, bringing Dorsey to the right-hand side.
“I was able to do more on my right foot and we just got a couple of more opportunities that way,” Dorsey said regarding what the switch did for her performance.
After the switch, the Commodores looked more assured going forward, though there was still some nervousness at the back with balls not cleared early enough. As Ambrose had predicted, the game was “combative,” with physical battles in midfield as the Aggies tried to grow into the game.
The ‘Dores were pressing higher up the pitch, with both the midfield players and forwards winning possession well up the pitch. The elevated work rate, in spite of “a short turnaround” from their last game according to Ambrose, thwarted any counter-attacking opportunities for the opposition. The substitutions made by Ambrose a little bit after halfway through the first period kept energy levels up as he brought in Welch and Hannon Eberts to bomb forward.
The fans were on their feet for the best chance yet for the commodores, which came with 10 minutes left in the period. The work rate and pressing up top by Welch allowed her to win the ball in the opposition’s half and play through Simmons, who tried to round the keeper but was forced to the by-line. By the time she cut the ball back, the chance had been squandered as captain Scarpa released a tame shot into the keeper’s comfortable hands.
This was the first of back-to-back chances for the Commodores, as a long throw by Welch made it to the middle of the box and was headed down to the path of the newly substituted Eberts, who fired a shot just wide.
Vanderbilt pinned the Aggies in their own half for the rest of the period to come into the locker room on the front foot.
Ambrose kept the switch on the wings with Dorsey on the right coming out of the half — a masterpiece in coaching. Just four minutes into the second period, the Aggies’ defense failed to deal with a corner whipped in from the left by Simmons, which was headed down by another freshman, Grace Jackson.
Among all the scramble, Dorsey found herself with the loose ball and slotted it into the back of the net for her first goal as a Commodore.
“It felt great,” Dorsey said. “Coming out of halftime we knew that we just had to get the first goal, and we got it pretty early and that definitely set a great tone for the rest of the second half.”
Of course, the player who pulled the strings for that first goal, Simmons, deserves credit as well. She had been relatively quiet in the first half, as the Aggies did a good job of marking her and not allowing her time on the ball. But great players always find a way to influence a game, and hers came through set pieces as she was repeatedly fouled on the left-hand side to win free kicks, in addition to the corners won by the team’s increased commitment in going forward after the break.
“Set pieces are important in every game because: one, it brings everyone on the opposing team back to defend,” Ambrose said. “Secondly, it gives you a chance to put the ball anywhere between one and seven yards from their goal.”
This is what Simmons did again with another corner kick from the left, as Welch headed it into goal after it was flicked on to the far post, for a 2-0 lead.
Despite the numerous chances the Commodores created, especially down the left flank, the Aggies had times when they looked more threatening in the second period. The first wave of attacks came 10 minutes after they had gone down a goal, as they had claim to two penalty shouts within the space of a minute.
First, Sasha Gray’s back pass to Cristina De Zeeuw put her in unnecessary pressure, as her clearance deflected into the path of Aggie senior Sarah Shaw, who found herself clear on goal before a sliding challenge from behind prevented her from getting off a shot. Shaw recovered the ball from the keeper and cut it back to her rushing midfield, only to see one of her teammates seemingly pulled down in the box. The away fans made the referee aware of their protest from the bleachers, as did Aggies Coach G Guerrieri, who was given a warning to cool down.
The second wave of attacks also came after the Aggies conceded their second, with fewer than 10 minutes left in the game. All four of their corner kicks came within this seven-to-eight minute period as they pinned down the ‘Dores and forced them to clear their lines.
Forced to sit back and absorb the pressure, Vanderbilt’s defense looked shaky at times but was not made to pay for it by the Aggie forwards as it escaped the game with a clean sheet, keeper Kaitlyn Fahrner’s first in SEC play this season and third overall. Considering they kept a player in check who had scored 5 goals and assisted four in Haley Pounds, Ambrose thought “the defending was excellent down the stretch.”
A hard fought win against a ranked opponent is a sign of the team’s ongoing growth and improvement and should point to good things to come still.
“One good performance is all it took for them to buy into the way we can play and how good we can be,” Ambrose said. “… I want them to get used to that feeling. I don’t want it to be a surprise. Learning how to win is important. I don’t know if we’re all the way there yet but I think tonight was a really big step in that direction for a team loaded with young players.”
With so many freshmen contributing to the team’s success in recent games, a big win like this would have come as a surprise to some people — albeit a pleasant one.