Editor’s Note: This team preview was provided by contributor Quzybuk, who has more knowledge about soccer in his little finger than most of the staff has in their collective bodies.
Record: 18-2-3 (5-1-2 ACC, ACC Tournament Champions)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 2
Road to the College Cup: def. Coastal Carolina 2-0, def. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 2-1, def. Virginia Tech 2-0
Projected Formation: 4-2-3-1
Coach: Bobby Muuss
Projected Starting Lineup: Andreu Cases Mundet, Logan Gdula, Kevin Politz, Sam Raben, Alex Knox, Brad Dunwell, Ian Harkes, Ema Twumasi, Jacori Hayes, Luis Argudo, Jon Bakero
Stats: 1.48 goals per game (71st), 0.46 goals allowed per game (tied 1st)
Key Subs: Hayden Partain, Steven Echavarria
Key Injuries: Alec Ferrell, Hunter Bandy, Ricky Greensfelder
Tactics: Muuss likes to set the Deacs in a possession-oriented 4-2-3-1. The intent is to play defense through offense, and then if the circumstances allow to play offense through defense. As is common in the modern game, Harkes acts as a “runner” in midfield, so on defense he and Dunwell act as a “shield” for the center backs, but on offense he will both drop back to receive the ball from the backline and push high up the field (and the formation will shift into a 4-1-4-1). The wings (Twumasi, Argudo, Partain, and Echavarria) have the freedom to make runs centrally. Width is usually supported by the outside backs (Gdula and Knox), who will get forward as situations allow.
Offense: What separates Wake offensively is that Harkes isn’t the only player who has positional fluidity: both Bakero and Hayes are happy to show deep for the ball as well, which allows midfield runners and the wings to act as the farthest man forward and makes it difficult for a defensive line to effectively man-mark. The midfield engine of Dunwell-Harkes-Hayes works very well to keep possession and provide outlets to recycle possession; it’s not an exaggeration to say this is the best midfield group in the entire country. The Deacs usually prefer to pass their way through a defense, although Harkes in particular is capable of picking out any of the front four making a run behind the defense should the opposing defense try to restrict space too much.
Key Offensive Player: Ian Harkes. He doesn’t showcase his 1-on-1 skills as much as some others, and he’s got one goal from open play in his four years, but he’s the one that determines how the game is played. If opposing teams allow him time on the ball, as Clemson did in the ACC Championship Game, he will create havoc. More and more opposing teams have tried to man-mark him out of the game, and some have been successful for periods of time. If this is what Denver tries, then look for Hayes to try to find pockets of space in dangerous areas and/or beat players 1-v-1 to create attacking looks and for Bakero to try and create space using dummy runs.
Defense: The main defense is holding the ball on offense. Expect to see a lot of ball circulation amongst the back four, with occasional probes forward by Dunwell and Harkes. This is by design: the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball. When the other team has a period of possession, Wake will have 9 players back with Bakero acting as a release valve for the pressure. In these situations, the Deacs will attempt to force the ball wide into less dangerous positions. This is actually fairly rare, even for a team that is comfortable sitting back; Wake usually dominates possession. More frequently, you’ll see Wake’s transition defense, which manifests in two ways. Wake will occasionally press using the attacking four players, sometimes even with Harkes as a fifth, although this has happened less this year than last. This is designed to create an errant pass or force a turnover to lead to a quick counter. If the initial press doesn’t work or if it’s not used, the main responsibility falls with Dunwell (and occasionally Harkes) to funnel the ball wide away from the center backs Politz and Raben. While Politz and Raben are certainly capable of making tackles in space, that’s not a situation that Wake (or any team) wants to find itself in consistently.
Key Defensive Player: Brad Dunwell. He’s not the biggest or the fastest, but he has excellent tactical positioning and he needs to. Given that Wake will likely have the lion’s share of possession, Denver will try to break quickly on counter-attacks and Dunwell is the person with the most responsibility to limit those opportunities. If he breaks up opportunities (even by fouling), then it’ll be hard for Denver to score.
Five things to watch for:
- Who scores first. The goals per game figure may be a little puzzling to some, but Wake is a team that is perfectly content to sit on a one-goal lead and try for a second on the counter. If this happens, expect the game to slow into a dull grind, and for Denver to start getting increasingly frustrated. However, for all the possession, this is not a team that’s built to break down a team committed to keeping numbers back. Think of it like a football team like Georgia Tech: great when ahead and using the running game to eat clock, but as soon as they have to pass to catch-up things go haywire. Wake has only trailed four times this season, so it doesn’t happen too often; if it happens at any point this weekend, the Deacs are in trouble.
- Midfield space. I mentioned Harkes above, but Jacori Hayes is a very crafty player, and has a habit of finding himself wide open even when players are assigned to specifically mark him. He also has no problem using his low center of gravity to shield the ball against players that seem twice his size. There’s a reason he’s the leading scorer on this team; if he can find a little freedom, he’ll absolutely punish defenses. This is usually a good barometer of how teams intend to play against Wake: are teams specifically marking Harkes/Hayes (i.e., playing a reactionary style), or are they marking more zonally (the normal system for Denver given that the Pioneers are used to be being the better team in most of their games).
- Set pieces. Wake is a pretty small team, and although Denver will be one of the smaller teams Wake faces, there’s always the possibility that something goes wrong on a cross. Losing Ferrell here particularly hurts: at 6-4, he was able to catch or punch crosses a lot easier than the 6-0 (and that’s generous, I must say) Cases Mundet, who has had difficulties outmuscling bigger players on crosses. One of the favored ways of attacking Wake has been using bigger players, and although it’s hard to say that any strategy has had consistent success against the Wake defense, set pieces are always nail-biting moments. The only goal that Wake has allowed this NCAA Tournament came off a set piece.
- Attacking width. One of the usual barometers for how aggressive/how cautious Muuss feels is the positioning of the outside backs. Against good teams, the backs will be more inclined to stay back for fear of counterattacks, but will move forward to provide width at times. If the Deacs are in need of a goal or if the threat of a counter down the wings is nonexistent, expect to see the outside backs almost function as extra attacking players, which in turn allows the wings to pinch in and function as secondary goal-scoring options more centrally.
- Penalties. The looming specter over every single-elimination game, penalties are the absolute worst. Should the teams remain tied at the end of 90 minutes, they will play two sudden-death (in soccer, this is called “Golden Goal”) overtime periods of 10 minutes each. If the game is still tied after these, then we approach the dreaded penalty shootout, and if you thought soccer was overly dramatic before…
A final prediction: I am very worried about Denver. One thing that will surely be brought up frequently is the connection between the two programs. Bobby Muuss took over from Wake having coached at Denver (and having recruited most of the players), and his top assistant and the current Denver head coach is former Deac Jamie Franks (’09).
Not that either team will be lacking for motivation at this point in the season, but I can definitely see Denver having that extra oomph to show Muuss that he was wrong to leave. These two teams are the best defensively in the country, and it’s difficult to envision this being high-scoring.
I think Denver scores a first-half goal off a counterattack, and Wake is unable to break down the defense the rest of the way. 1-0 for Denver, who then loses to either UNC or Stanford in the final. I hope I’m wrong.