I have had the pleasure of attending numerous men's and women's soccer games this season. I have personal ties to both teams, and games are easy to get to and generally pretty fun.
Tonight was perhaps the best Wake soccer game I've ever seen, as the Deacs came back to defeat top-ranked and undefeated Maryland 4-2. The game was wild, full of emotional swings, and featured noticeable bad blood, including an apparent punch and subsequent red card. And in the end, the Deacs simply would not be denied.
Collin Martin got the Deacs going with a nifty cross about 15 minutes in to Sean Okoli, whose point-blank header was only parried by Maryland goalkeeper Keith Cardona. Midfielder Jared Watts was on the spot to finish up, but the goal was officially credited to Okoli. Watts seemed to take this personally (THIS IS FORESHADOWING).
From then on, the first half was all Terps. It was pretty easy to see why they're undefeated and top-ranked: the entire team is dangerously quick, they all look sharp on the ball, and the combination play from midfield to forwards is sharp.
The Terps got one goal back rather quickly - a ball was played in that Wake keeper Andrew Harris wasn't able to fully punch away, and John Stertzer decided to go ahead and make Sportscenter by full-on bicycle-kicking the ball into the goal (no kidding, I've never seen one successfully pulled off in a game before, and I predict this one will easily make Sportscenter's Top 10). 1-1 about halfway through the half. Also, one of the Maryland players decided to taunt the crowd.
Unfortunately, the Terps continued to dominate. Wake's backs attempted to clear the ball long with absolutely no success, and Maryland was able to sustain pressure. A ball over the top to Christiano Francoise put Harris in no-man's land, and Francoise was able to scoot the ball around him into an open net for a 1-2 lead heading in to halftime. The same Maryland player taunted the crowd. This would prove to be a big mistake.
A note on Harris' play: Wake has started Michael Lisch in goal most of the season, and he's looked solid. Harris got the start on senior night against South Carolina (despite Lisch being a senior and Harris being a freshman) and gave in what I thought was a misplayed shot from a sharp angle. Tonight, he looked pretty tentative coming off his line, but he definitely grew in confidence as the game progressed.
I've always wondered what it would be like to have a coach who could have a tangible positive impact on the game via tactical adjustments. Some coaches make changes, and those coaches never seem to end up at Wake. Well, I'll just say this - the game ball tonight should've gone to coach Jay Vidovich, both for whatever he said to the players at halftime and for the tactical adjustments he made.
Wake came out the second half on fire. Vidovich took out one of the forwards from his favored 4-3-3 for a 4-4-2 and moved Tony Arena up from center back (and inserting Danny Wenzel at center back). What followed can only be described as the best half of soccer I've ever seen a Wake team play (and I went to plenty of games during the 2007 championship season).
Two minutes into the half, Watts was unjustly robbed of a penalty after he dispossessed a Maryland defender and got pulled from behind. Suffice to say, Jared did not like this, as he started - for lack of a better word - bullying Maryland players with physical play on all 50/50 balls played towards him.
Five minutes into the half, Wake had a series where two separate shots had to be cleared off the line by defenders with the goalie beaten.
All this pressure seemed to legitimately rattle the Maryland players, who began to increasingly foul the Wake players intentionally. This is likely a controversial point, but I don't think there's any way to change the fact that the Maryland players became increasingly unhinged as the second half progressed.
Thirteen minutes into the half, Okoli found Ross Tomaselli on a diagonal ball passed back towards the penalty marker, and Tomaselli coolly buried the ball in the corner for 2-2.
Halfway through the second half, the dam broke. After a series of rough fouls, Terp defender London Woodberry seemed to take a punch at Watts. Red card. As Woodberry was leaving the field, words were still being exchanged. Eventually the coaches had to be separated. Vidovich took Watts off to cool for good measure, but down a man, the damage was done. Any shot that Maryland had at winning this game was over, with the crowd into it and the Wake players flying around like they had jet packs on. I think had they been able to take the 2-2 draw and leave right there, most of the Maryland team would've been on the bus. Unfortunately for them, there were 20 minutes left.
Two minutes later, defender Chris Duvall dribbled forty yards unmarked from his position at right back before lofting the ball to Luca Jimenez, who was wide-ass-open on the far post at the six-yard box. Jimenez finished with a beautiful touch into the far post. 3-2. At this point the crowd was going absolutely bonkers.
Ten minutes later, they had more reason to cheer. Midfielder Luciano Delbono scythed his way from midfield past three Maryland defenders into the top of the box, where he was tackled by two Maryland players. I thought Delbono went down rather easily, but the ref - possibly persuaded by the crowd or the increasingly violent nature of the game - awarded a penalty. Wenzel made no doubt about the finish, going low and left, then running to Cardona and letting him know. 4-2, and Maryland was soup.
Overall, it's hard to come away from this and not be incredibly impressed. Maryland I think proved their ranking - they went down a goal, but didn't panic and got two good goals to reverse the deficit. And then they got run off the field.
This Wake team is for real. I had planned to write a fan-post this week of why both soccer teams deserved your attention, but in hindsight, this result puts it better than I ever could. 1-2 down to the top-ranked team in the country, and this team's response is to blitzkrieg. Maryland played fast, and when pressed they played dirty. And the Wake players responded by playing faster. The defense held solid for most of the night against a dangerous front line, the midfield completely overran Maryland in the second half, and the front line played discipline with regards to tracking back for defensive assignments AND finishing up front.
And the bottom line going forward: while I'm not sure Wake would be happy seeing Maryland again (the game could get dirty quickly), if Wake plays at the level it played the second half it might not matter - that team could and would beat anyone in the country, and would rightfully be favored to win the ACC Tournament (which Vidovich strangely has never won) and NCAA Tournament.
Tomorrow night, the Wake women's team plays... Maryland! Hopefully they can channel that same mojo and run roughshod over the Terps. The teams are fairly evenly matched; Maryland won in Winston in September 2-1, but only created three chances all game, while Wake dominated possession. Our ladies are equally worthy of your attention (actually being the higher-ranked of the two squads). The game is the second ACC Tournament semifinal and will be held in Cary at Wake-Med something-or-other at 7:30. If you don't otherwise have plans, I implore you to round up some friends and make the drive over to cheer on the Deacs. I promise, they're worth your time.