Vanderbilt Soccer looks to keep their season alive against No. 4-seeded Northwestern in the DI Women’s Soccer Championship

In the midst of an impressive postseason run, what needs to go right for the Commodores to pull off the upset?

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Vanderbilt Athletics

The Commodores celebrate after their upset of No. 5 Clemson on Nov. 11, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Anish Mago and Aiden Rutman

Vanderbilt Soccer is on fire. It started with the SEC tournament, when the Commodores defeated No. 9 Arkansas in a penalty shootout before falling just short of an upset of No. 3 Alabama. It continued with Vanderbilt’s victory over No. 5-seeded Clemson in the first round of the DI Women’s Soccer Championship.

They’ll have a chance to extend their season this Friday, Nov. 18, against the No. 4-seeded Northwestern Wildcats. The teams will square off at 6 p.m. CST at UCLA’s Wallis Annenberg Stadium.

Vanderbilt’s keys to success

What do the Commodores have to do to continue their newfound success?

Keep converting on set pieces.

The proof is quite literally in the pudding. The involvement of Peyton Cutshall, who now has three goals in her past three games after recording just two in her first 17, has been a revelation for the Commodores. Vanderbilt has struggled all season on set pieces—as Soccer with Sam enthusiasts might know—but they have something working with Cutshall. Few players can match up with Cutshall in terms of height, and the Commodores have utilized her size on corner kicks frequently in the postseason. If they can continue to get her the ball with a header opportunity, good things will come.

Another key for them is controlling time of possession. Vanderbilt has controlled the ball—and therefore the tempo of the game—all season. The Commodores have led in time of possession in 19 of their 20 games this season, with the sole exception being their 2-0 loss to Tennessee in October. The more the Commodores control the ball, the more scoring opportunities they will create. Led by first-team All-SEC selection Maya Antoine, we know that the defense will hold up their side of the bargain. They’ve allowed just 17 goals through 20 games. It’s up to the offense to help them out and provide some goal-support.

Northwestern’s scouting report

With a 15-4-2 record to show for their efforts, the Northwestern Wildcats have been nothing short of dominant this season. Despite hiccups towards the end of their regular season, the Wildcats still finished the season ranked No. 12 nationally and showed their quality with a run to the semifinals of the Big 10 Tournament. Coming off of a convincing 3-0 first-round victory over SIUE, the Wildcats certainly have the momentum needed for a deep run in the tournament. The question stands: What can Vanderbilt do to stand in their way?

In terms of team strengths, the Wildcats’ ability to play as a team jumps off of the page. Northwestern ranked as one of the most proficient scoring offenses in all of DI this season, scoring 44 goals over the season and averaging just over two per game. Remarkably, despite the high scoring volume, the Wildcats have had a teammate assist every goal they’ve scored this season. All 44. For the Commodores, this stat paints a clear picture of the high-level chance creation that they will face on Friday. Led by first-team All-Big 10 selection Meg Boade (seven goals, two assists this season), the Wildcats’ midfield is one of the strongest in the country and will surely be a thorn in the Commodores’ side as they look to pull off the upset.

For all of the strengths the Wildcats possess on the field, they do have a noticeable pattern that appears in all of their losses this season: a potential lack of resiliency. The Wildcats only have four losses to date, but in all of them, the Wildcats have conceded the game’s opening goal and have been unable to find their way back into the match. It happened most recently in their loss to Penn State in the Big 10 Tournament, where the Wildcats conceded twice within the first 18 minutes of the game and were not able to battle back. For the Commodores, putting pressure on the Wildcats and taking an early lead could be the best way to pull off the upset victory. The Commodores are quite familiar with this formula from their first-round victory over No. 5-seeded Clemson, where Cutshall scored the opener and the Commodores were able to hang on for a narrow victory. Stealing a goal early and absorbing the Wildcats’ pressure for the rest of the match could be a strategy we see head coach Darren Ambrose play towards on Friday night.

Northwestern certainly represents one of the best opponents Vanderbilt have taken on this season, but the Commodores have shown their ability to play with the nation’s best on their postseason journey. With a win, Vanderbilt would advance past the second round of the tournament for the first time in program history.