Men's soccer coach Jay Vidovich says that he specifically has his team practice situations playing down one man or two men. The results were on full display last night, as the #24 Deacs overcame a incredibly unforgiving referee and #17VCU team to win 2-1 at Spry Stadium.
Defenders Tolani Ibikunle and Sam Fink each scored for the Deacs after star forward Sean Okoli was given a straight red card in the 23rd minute with the Deacs down 1-0. Wake improved to 5-2-0 on the season.
The game started promisingly enough, as each team made forays forward. Michael Gamble had several early chances in the early going, but just missed the target on each. VCU, meanwhile, was content to play quick counter-attacking soccer, and generally looked dangerous with midfielders making runs into cleared out space to confuse the Wake back four.
VCU would be the first to strike in the 19th minute. A VCU free kick from about 25 yards caused problems for the Wake backline, as Rams midfielder Dakota Barnathan flicked a header at point blank range right at goalie Alec Ferrell. Ferrell stopped the initial shot, but could only parry the ball back into the air, and Barnathan quickly headed the ball past Ferrell into the far post.
Things went from bad to worse for the Deacs shortly thereafter. After Wake surged forward and maintained pressure looking for an equalizer, Okoli fouled a VCU defender going for a loose ball. While walking away, he retrieved the ball and flipped it back to the VCU player to take the free kick; the thrown ball - not roughly in any way - hit the VCU player in the head while he was looking at the ref.
Now, I will admit that there are players on the men's team who play with a decided chip on their shoulder. Games can get rough and chippy, and certain players are more likely to be involved in that process than others. Sean Okoli is one of the most level-headed players on the team, and typically does not involve himself in these types of shenanigans. Even after taking some hard fouls as defenders tend to dish out, he just keeps his head down and goes about his business (his business being to be generally awesome and score lots of goals). So the referee's decision to show a straight red card without any sort of warning or history between the players was absolutely one of the worst decisions I've ever seen from a referee. Various Wake players tried to appeal the decision, including going to the linesman to have him talk to the referee, but to no avail. And as an added "fuck you," Wake's most important player, captain Jared Watts, was given a yellow card for dissent.
Noted sports philosopher Rasheed Wallace coined the phrase "ball don't lie" to describe situations where a poor refereeing decision is made, and then karmic balance is restored by some sort of divine sports providence. An poorly called foul is followed by a missed free throw in basketball; a penalty in football is followed by a turnover.
After going down to 10 men, Wake ran a veritable soccer clinic. Consider the shot splits: at the time of the red card, Wake had 4 shots while VCU had 6. Over the next 67 or so minutes, VCU added 8 more shots for a total of 14. The Deacs finished with 27.
And the ball, as it turned out, didn't lie. After a narrow miss by forward Andy Lubahn, Ibikunle finally notched things in the 36th minute after collecting a pass from Lubahn and firing a low shot into the near post from 25 yards. The Deacs were content to see out the last 10 minutes of the half and go into the break 1-1.
Ordinarily, I'd attribute Vidovich saying that he has his team practice 10 man situations as coachspeak. Yes, the Deacs probably have practiced it, but likely briefly and for alternative reasons (working on spacing or defensive assignments). Well, Vidovich's halftime changes seemed extremely purposeful and a clear message of intent: instead of opting to try and hold for a 1-1 draw against a talented team, Vidovich (essentially) moved his formation from a 4-4-1 to a 4-3-2, adding a forward when most coaches would be adding defenders (normally the Deacs play a 4-3-3 which would be very familiar to Barcelona fans: four backs, three central midfielders to hold the ball, and two wing attackers paired with a central striker).
The Deacs' aggression quickly materialized for the deciding goal. In the 54th minute, a Luca Gimenez corner kick found Watts in the box, who headed the ball to the far post. Because of the spin of the ball, the ball hit the inside of the post and ricocheted out, but Fink was Johnny-on-the-spot and slammed home the rebound for a 2-1 margin.
Wake continued getting forward for the remaining 35 minutes, and the defensive line of Fink, Ibikunle, Chris Duvall, and makeshift left back Philip Parker did a remarkable job holding VCU without dangerous scoring opportunities while the midfield troika of Watts, Ian Harkes (that would be the oldest child of John, for all you USMNT fans), and Ross Tomaselli both kept possession and broke up the majority of VCU's preferred quick-strike counterattacks. All in all, it was a remarkable performance given the circumstances, and the Deacs should clearly be proud of themselves moving forward.
Now, speaking of moving forward: the red card means that Okoli will be unavailable in the next game, which just so happens to be against #1 North Carolina Saturday night at 7 pm in Spry. While the Heels may be tops in the country, the Deacs are tops in the ACC, with a perfect 3-0-0 mark thus far, while the Heels have been held to 3 draws in 3 games thus far. A draw would suit Wake just fine in the long-term, but you can bet that the Deacs know it's a chance to really take a step forward both locally and nationally. And given the performance last night, I see no reason why they cannot.