The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (4-3-1, 1-1-1) are back in action tonight at Spry in one of their biggest matchups of the season, with the #19 Clemson Tigers (7-2, 2-1), ranked as the #2 team in the nation until last week, coming to town for a game with serious implications for the rest of the season. The Deacs come into this one after a monumentally disappointing 1-0 double overtime loss at home to the Liberty Flames, but the Tigers also come into this one reeling after being stunned by UNCG in Greensboro 3-1 last Tuesday and then being shut out by #16 Pitt at home, ending a 31 match home unbeaten streak. Both teams are now well shy of where they want to be, with both having expectations of being national title contenders this season. This game offers them an opportunity right the ship and sail back on course.
The all time series between the two programs is a tight one, with the Deacs holding a 24-19-8 advantage over the Tigers, but Wake has only lost 1 of its last 8 matchups against them, holding a 6-1-1 record over that span. This includes last year’s 3 game set between the two sides, with the teams splitting the series 1-1-1. Clemson took the first matchup 2-1 at Historic Riggs Field in a game that they generally controlled, with a Machop Chol long range bomb being the only blemish in what was a great performance by the Tigers. In the second matchup at Spry, Wake dominated, earning a 2-0 victory as Clemson did little to threaten Wake’s goal, with Nico Benalcazar and Calvin Harris getting the goals for the Deacs. The rubber match didn’t decide the series, with neither side putting one in the net in 110 minutes at Historic Riggs Field as Wake earned a draw on the road against #1 Clemson. Clemson was picked as the favorite to win the Atlantic Division of the ACC this season while the Deacs were picked to be second, but both teams are now on the outside looking in at these places after tough starts to their ACC slates.
Mike Noonan is entering his 12th season as the head coach of the Tigers, with him having brought the program back to the elite of men’s soccer, winning an ACC Championship as well as earning a spot in the national championship game since he became the Clemson boss. He’s done this with a tactical system that has become Clemson’s identity, rolling out a 4-3-3 and employing a dogged press to create chaos in the opposing half that many teams are unable to deal with. They like to hit the ball long to create second balls for their team, and they have a swarming, effective counterpress when they lose the ball. On the attack, they take advantage of set pieces and love to send crosses into the area and swarm the box, hoping that their big center forward can either knock one in or act as a decoy for a back post runner who can put it away. Wake had significant trouble keeping track of runners and dealing with the press in the first game last season between these two sides, but in the second game they were able to play right through, exposing the weakness in Clemson’s system and in any pressing system: if you can get past that first line of the press, you almost always will be able to create a dangerous attack. Although Wake are not a team that plays on the break, if they can move the ball quickly after getting past the Tigers’ first line, they will cause serious problems. But if they struggle against the press and play sloppily as they did in Louisville and in the first half against NC State, Clemson will likely dominate. The most important thing for Wake in this game is taking their chances. They saw against NC State and Liberty what can happen when you let teams stay in games by missing big opportunities. Wake was probably the better team in both games, but have a tie and a loss to show for it. If they leave goals on the field again in this one, Clemson will punish them.
Ones to Watch
#27 Isaiah Reid (CF/W): Isaiah Reid has stepped up in a big way to replace the production that Clemson lost when Kimarni Smith was drafted by DC United of MLS. In 9 games this season, Reid has registered 6 goals, good for the team lead in goals and in points. He is a strong, fast forward with a great sense for where he needs to be in the box, and a good finisher to boot. As all Clemson forwards are expected to be, he is also very energetic and aggressive in the press, and this season is finally blossoming into a great college player. He’ll be a serious threat to score if he gets good service from his teammates, and will be a handful for the Wake backline.
#21 Ousmane Sylla (CM): Sylla has started this season mostly coming off of the bench for the Tigers, but in his limited minutes he has climbed the ladder and found himself to be an important player on this Clemson team, as well as a member of the starting lineup. Sylla is a smaller midfielder and does most of his great work in the attack, with his energy, excellent feet, and confidence to take players on combining to make him a player of serious note for his team. He’s not a slouch defensively either, as the slightly built midfielder knows how to use his smaller frame, and has an excellent motor for the press. He has 2 goals and 3 assists in only 358 minutes this season, so when he is on the field, expect him to be creating dangerous attacks for the Tigers.
#16 Hosei Kijima (W/CM/RB): Kijima has played his way back into a starting role this season, and has shown why in every minute he’s been on the field. Kijima is fast, high energy, aggressive, and now as a starting winger, has shown the ability to get to the line and put good service into the box. Although he hasn’t yet registered a goal or assist, he has been one of the most dangerous players for Wake this season, and I would expect it to be no different this game. Kijima is always a sparkplug for this team and always brings the energy, and in a game where you’ll need to match the other team’s intensity to stay in it, Kijima will have a critical role in setting the tone.
#17 Omar Hernandez (AM): It has not been a good season for Omar Hernandez so far. He sits at 4 points through 8 games, and has had some chances this year that he will feel he should have put away. Based on his progress last season, his junior year looked like it would be his breakout into the Hermann Trophy conversation, but he has struggled early on and the team has struggled along with him. Hernandez is now expected to be one of the stars of this team, and for Wake to turn things around, he’ll need to produce. He’s shown flashes of the brilliance he showed throughout the Spring last season, but in a big game scenario like tonight, he’ll be expected to show more than just flashes.
Kickoff is set for 7:00 tonight.