2022 season preview: Vanderbilt soccer

After a busy offseason, Vanderbilt soccer will look to improve off an underwhelming 2021 campaign.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt opens the 2022 campaign on Aug. 18 at Evansville. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor

Following an inconsistent 2021 campaign, Vanderbilt women’s soccer will return to the pitch to kick off another season on Aug. 18, when they will travel to face the University of Evansville. With six returning seniors and graduate students and five incoming transfers, Darren Ambrose’s team has a promising combination of veteran leadership and new talent. 

Despite coming into the 2021 season ranked No. 18 nationally, the Commodores underperformed at the start of the season. A mix of nagging injuries and poor performances left Vanderbilt standing at just 3-4-1 following the completion of their non-conference schedule.

Yet, despite their early struggles, Vanderbilt was able to show its quality over the conference portion of the season. Ambrose’s squad notched three consecutive conference wins and finished with a 5-4-1 record in a very competitive SEC conference. Heading into the league tournament with an 8-8-1 record and in great form, the No. 7 Commodores fell in the opening round to No. 10 Florida on penalty kicks. 

As the Commodores hope to reclaim their form from the second half of last season, they will have to do so without a key piece: Maddie Elwell. The versatile forward collected 13 goal contributions in just 19 games last season, representing a consistent force on the wing for Vanderbilt. Elwell’s collegiate career featured two All-SEC Second Team honors, and she ranks third in career assists for Vanderbilt (29). Her stellar play as a Commodore led to her being drafted by the Washington Spirit in the NWSL draft on Dec. 18, 2021. 

Despite the big loss of Elwell, the Commodores will have three key players returning and using their final year of eligibility: Raegan Kelly, Peyton Cutshall and Ella Shamburger. For Vanderbilt, no additions to the squad are nearly as important as the return of Kelly. The attacking midfielder was the Commodores’ main source of production in the final third last season, finishing with a team-leading eight goals to go along with three assists en route to All-SEC First Team honors. Kelly served as a key cog in Ambrose’s midfield, orchestrating attacks from behind the front line and controlling the tempo for Vanderbilt. In addition to Kelly’s return, Cutshall and Shamberger also represent major pieces for Vanderbilt this season. Cutshall finished last season tied for second on the team in goals (4), while Shamberger started all 19 games on the back line. The trio of returning graduate students will play major roles in their final year of eligibility. 

Along with these three pieces, Ambrose will see many of his regular starters return for this season. Some of the most notable are defenders Maya Antoine and Ava Hetzel, who ranked third and fifth respectively on the team in minutes played last year. The back-line duo will look to continue to build on a solid defensive season with more experience. Another potentially critical piece of Ambrose’s rotation is junior Amber Nguyen, who finished second on the team in assists (5) last season, showcasing elite technical ability. With the departure of Elwell, look for Nguyen to account for a lion’s share of the team’s creativity in the final third. 

This offseason, Vanderbilt was active in the transfer portal, bringing in five new players to potentially add to Ambrose’s rotation. Vanderbilt added forward Francesca Yanchuk (Villanova) and defender Abena Aidoo (California) during the winter and recruited three more transfers over the summer: graduate students Olivia Stone (Northwestern) and Brooke VanDyck (Notre Dame), as well as sophomore Mia Castillo (San Diego). 

Of the new additions to the squad, the two players with the best chances to see early minutes for the Commodores are Aidoo and Stone. Aidoo was a steady defender for California, where she made 56 starts across her four years there. Ambrose has traditionally valued experience on the back-line, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Aidoo as a regular rotation player in the 2022 season. Stone, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, represents a creative attacking option for Ambrose. The forward finished second in assists for Northwestern during her last season. As Ambrose looks to replace the production lost with the departure of Elwell, look for Stone to get up to speed quickly. 

To go along with additions made through the transfer portal, the Commodores brought in six new freshmen to join the squad: midfielders Hannah McLaughlin and Ally Bollig, defenders Maddie Baker and Ella Zimmerman, forward Caroline Betts and goalkeeper Alexa Gianoplus. While the freshman class may not see an abundance of early minutes, it’s certainly a talented group, ranking in the top-25 in the country. 

Following road matchups against Evansville and Purdue to start the season, Vanderbilt will return to Nashville for a four-game homestand to make up the bulk of their non-conference schedule. The Commodores will then travel to face Middle Tennessee before opening SEC play at home versus LSU on Sept. 18. 

The Commodores will face their most difficult stretch of opponents at the end of the regular season, when they will face No. 8 Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi State before ending their season by traveling to face No. 11 Tennessee on Oct. 27. 

If Vanderbilt can match their performance from a year ago, the SEC Tournament begins just three days later, on Oct. 30. After a busy offseason, it’s almost time for the opening whistle.