The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (12-6-1, 5-4-1 ACC) secured their place in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, defeating the Mercer Bears (10-8-1, 6-1-1 SoCon) at Spry in a tight contest. It marks the seventh straight season where Wake has won a tournament game, and the Deacs will now advance to face the #13 Florida International Panthers (12-3-2, 7-1-1 C-USA). It is set to be a great matchup between two teams that score at will, but before we look ahead at that one let’s take a look back at the Deacs’ first round victory.
The Deacs had the opportunity to defend home soil in their first round tournament matchup this year, and, although it wasn’t their most impressive performance of the season, they did enough to get the victory. The game didn’t start in the best way for Wake, with Mercer’s press creating some issues, and the Deacs being unable to break through the Bears’ defense, although Mercer weren’t able to create much of anything either. In the 11th minute, Mercer were able to hit Wake on the counter and take a shock lead though, as Nick Wanzer would play a ball out to Dylan Gaither, who would run down the right flank with it. When no one stepped out to him, he would strike one from 25 yards out from a wide angle, smack it off the post and in for his 14th goal of the season. It wouldn’t take long for Wake to tie things back up, however, as in the 18th minute, with Jake Swallen would send a lovely ball down the right flank to Hosei Kijima, who would cut it back to the top of the area for Kyle Holcomb, who would slide it into the bottom corner.
Wake got the better of the Bears for the remainder of the half, creating a fair few chances before the buzzer sounded. However, they were unable to gain the lead before the half, and the two teams would go into the break tied at one apiece. The second half started in much the same manner as the first, but the Bears looked a bit more dangerous on the break, and looked the more likely of the two teams to score in the opening 15 minutes. However, Wake would be the the team to break the deadlock in the 66th minute. Oscar Sears would play the ball back to Prince Amponsah, who would play it to Kyle Holcomb just outside the area. He would cut inside of his defender and lash one goalwards, sneaking it under keeper Trevor McMullin to give the Deacs the lead. The Deacs would see out the next 24 minutes and advance to the next round of the NCAA Tournament, defending resolutely against a spirited Mercer push.
My man of the match in this one is an easy pick, as Kyle Holcomb was exceptional in this game, and did exactly what was expected of him. He finished two chances to get Wake a victory, and also held the ball up well throughout the game. There were a few more players deserving credit for their performances, including Prince Amponsah, Garrison Tubbs, and Jake Swallen having some great games that were key to seeing Wake over the line. Overall, Wake did not put on their best performance in this game, but they did enough to get over the line, and that’s all that matters at this point in the season.
With their victory over Mercer, the Deacs earned a date with the 13th overall seed in the tournament, The FIU Panthers, who earned a bye for their performances this season. In the all time series, the Deacs have gotten the better of the Panthers in 4 of their 5 meetings, and each of the last 4, with the only loss coming in 1994. But this is a very different FIU team this year. They have been impressive, defeating three teams that were ranked in the United Soccer Coaches Poll at the time of the matchup, including then #1, and defending national champions, Marshall, and also earned a road draw at 9th seeded Kentucky. They did have a disappointing showing in the C-USA tournament after winning the regular season title, being dropped 3-0 in the first round by Kentucky. Their overall record against tournament teams is not incredibly impressive, though, as they sit at 2-3-1 in these games. They’re an impressive attacking team, having scored 40 goals in 17 games, the 12th most in the country. To sum it up, under new head coach Kyle Russell, the Panthers are once again looking like a powerful program coming out of the C-USA alongside tournament regulars like UNC Charlotte and Kentucky.
Tactically, the Panthers line up in a 4-4-2, and press high up the field with their wingers and forwards. Should that press not bear fruit, they settle back into a mid to deep block with two banks of four, with their midfielders sitting just ahead of their center backs. Going forward, they like to play a bit more direct, either looking to put the ball on their center forwards’ chests by hitting it long out of the defense, or looking for their wingers to take it up the flanks. They rely heavily on crosses to create offense and are a very dangerous team in the air. Defensively, it’s not the best matchup for Wake in theory, but the Deacs’ center backs have dealt with physical forwards relatively well for most of the season. This again looks like a game where Wake will need to play their way around or through a deep block, which they have shown the ability to do this season despite their early struggles. However, if they give FIU the same opportunities or chances to get forward that they gave Mercer, they are a lot more likely to be punished.
As for the players to watch in this one, for the Panthers it is freshman phenomenon #7 Bernardo dos Santos. The left winger out of Cascais, Portugal has registered 15 points this season, with 7 goals and an assist in under 1000 minutes. He’s a tricky left winger who likes to cut inside, and that can deliver a good ball. He’s quick and tricky, and will be a handful for Garrison Tubbs. As for Wake, #24 Jake Swallen is the player I would keep an eye on. He’s been the key for Wake’s attack for most of this season, acting as that link that progresses defense to attack. He sits second on the team in points, with 5 goals and 6 assists out of center midfield, always a threat to shoot from distance, be a late runner into the box from a cutback, or to send through a cutting ball to take opposing defenders out of the play. He’s been great this season, and with the team playing without Omar Hernandez, he’ll have to shoulder a lot of the creative burden.
Kickoff is set for 6:00, with the winner facing the winner of the Notre Dame and Villanova game.