NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ninety minutes, one unforgettable experience.
Vanderbilt held its own and then some Sunday against Racing Louisville FC at the Vanderbilt Soccer/Lacrosse Complex. The exhibition match between the reigning Southeastern Conference champions and the National Women’s Soccer League expansion side ended with a 2-1 victory for the visitors but also handed the home side an unmatched night on West End.
“It was definitely a little scary in first half,” Vanderbilt junior midfielder Raegan Kelley said. “Coming in we were like, ‘Let’s see where we can hold our own, but they’re going to be really good and they’re going to challenge us.’ Everyone was a little frazzled in the beginning, but our defense and (Vanderbilt keeper) Sarah Fuller played amazing.
“I think in the second half we just realized we can compete with this team and I think our offense kicked up then.”
Kelley scored a second-half goal that cut her team’s deficit in half. The Commodores couldn’t find the equalizer, but did find solid footing after the momentum and control hung with Racing Louisville for a sizable stretch in both halves.
The final few minutes had the feel of a crucial match late in the season, not one that was a tune-up as the programs go on their respective journeys from here on out.
“I think it was exactly what we hoped for,” Vanderbilt head coach Darren Ambrose said. “Before the game we said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a fast and furious game, but don’t short-change yourself. You’re more capable than you realize.’
“Tactically they’re a little but further ahead of us, which you’d expect. We had to do some shifting and moving, but as they grew into the game and as the game wore on I thought we actually got a little bit better. That’s exciting to me.”
Racing found the first-half’s lone goal, a Lauren Milliet strike after a Vanderbilt turnover in the box in the 43rd minute.
That result was the product of Racing controlling possession and play for the majority of the final 35 minutes of the half. Fuller was tested often and unofficially made seven saves in the first 45 minutes.
But before that, the Commodores came out spirited and focused much to the delight of the small crowd in attendance and the number of supporters who lined the hill between the stadium and the David Williams Wellness and Recreation Center. In the seventh minute Maddie Elwell played a cross from left to right into the box where a sliding Haley Hopkins got a touch that fell into the hands of Racing keeper Michelle Betos.
Racing began to assert itself not long after that continued to pressure early after halftime.
Three minutes into the second half Milliet drew a foul while streaking into the right side of the box earning a penalty kick. Cece Kizer stepped to the spot and powered Racing’s second goal into the top-right corner making it 2-0.
A little more than 10 minutes later the Commodores put an attack together where Elwell found herself unmarked in the left corner. Her cross toward goal found Hopkins, but her touch went just wide left of the post.
A quarter through the second half, however, Vandy finally broke through.
Kelley slipped behind the Racing defense and found herself all alone in front of Bezos. A right-footed, carving shot found the back of the net making it a 2-1 match in the 68th minute.
“We were high-pressing and we had really picked up our defense in the second half. I flew out and anticipated I might get past (the defender), might scare her with the pressure a little bit and took it to goal,” Kelley said. “I was actually shocked myself. But it was a really exciting moment. Everyone was super happy.”
Sunday’s result, although not an official one, was the first in which Vanderbilt was on the wrong side of the scoreline since a 2-1 overtime to defeat on Nov. 7. After that the Commodores then stormed through the SEC Tournament with four straight wins and returned to the pitch this spring for exhibition victories over Middle Tennessee and DePaul, respectively.
Vanderbilt now opens a four-match spring season at 3 p.m. Thursday against Kennesaw State, the first step toward the NCAA Tournament in April.
“I think it just kind of shows the kind of team we are,” Kelley said about Sunday’s result. “We were down 2-0 and just that we can come back and still fight and get a goal – we honestly probably could have scored maybe one or two more at the end. That just shows the effort and team and fight that we have.”