The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (13-6-1, 5-4-1 ACC) continued to survive and advance last weekend, escaping Miami with a victory against the FIU Panthers (12-4-2, 7-1-1 C-USA) in dramatic fashion after a back and forth contest. With that win, the Deacs advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the seventh straight year where they will face this year’s ACC champions, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (13-5-3, 7-2-3 ACC) in South Bend. It is a matchup between two teams with really contrasting styles, and two teams searching for a second national title. But before we look ahead to this afternoon’s clash between the Deacs and the Irish, let’s take a look back at what was a stupendous game in Miami.
Wake would find themselves in the unfriendly confines of FIU Soccer Stadium which was a packed house for this game. The Deacs struggled mightily in the first half from the first whistle, with FIU’s press preventing them from having any time on the ball, which threw a huge wrench in Wake’s gameplan. The chances kept coming for the Panthers, but they were just unable to convert, letting a few big opportunities go by the wayside before Wake suddenly found themselves on the counter in the 27th minute. Julian Kennedy would surge forward on the right flank after a poor set piece delivery that Wake easily collected. He would find Kyle Holcomb with no one near him in the middle of the field near the halfway line, with Holcomb weaving his way to the right side of the box. He would smack one back across goal, with the ball nestling into the bottom corner to give Wake the lead. It was Wake’s first chance of any kind, and they made the Panthers pay for giving it to them, taking a lead against the run of play.
It wouldn’t be long before FIU tied the game up, though, as in the 39th minute a bit of a weak foul call would go against Prince Amponsah at the top of the box, and Mauro Bravo would strike it into the upper 90 to get the Panthers on the board in spectacular fashion. It was a wonderful free kick, albeit one that likely shouldn’t have been given, but the Panthers were back tied once again regardless. There would be yet more fireworks before the half was out, as in the 42nd minute FIU would struggle to clear their lines, with Mattias Lavenant losing the ball near the top of the box due to pressure by Jake Swallen and Roald Mitchell. Mitchell would send the ball out wide to Chase Oliver, who found himself isolated on the right side of the box, and would hit one back across goal and into the net, beyond Tyler Hogan who likely should have done better on that effort. It was a colossal goal for Wake going into the half and a great response to FIU’s goal. They would go into the half with the lead and playing a bit better than they had in the first 40 minutes, but they would need to put in a better shift in the next 45 if they were going to be able to see off the Panthers.
In the second half, Wake began getting the better of the play and were able to play more in line with their style, possessing the ball and methodically working it around the field. FIU were still pressing hard, but weren’t getting nearly as much joy as they had in the first half, with Wake starting to match their intensity in the middle of the field and winning more duels than they had earlier. However, FIU would find a second goal before Wake could seal this one, with a 63rd minute long throw from Julian Hodek taking two dangerous bounces in the area before Matteo Gasperoni got a slight touch on the ball to send it into the goal and level the scores once again. It was a disappointing goal for Wake to give up, especially because of how well they had played in the half to that point. But only 24 seconds later, Wake would have their response, as they would work the ball around their defense from kickoff and send it up the right flank for Garrison Tubbs. Tubbs would take the ball inside with no one stepping to him, then sliding it through to Roald Mitchell, who had found a pocket behind an FIU defender, and who would slot it home with a stretching effort, giving the Deacs the lead once more. This one felt like the backbreaker for FIU, and the Panthers would seem to hit a wall in the last 20 minutes. There would still be one big chance that would bounce to Stephen Afrifa at the back post just outside the six yard box, with his effort being stuffed by Alphin. Ultimately, though, Wake were able to see off the Panthers, who were exhausted by that point in the game, and as the final buzzer sounded, the Wake players rushed onto the field to celebrate a huge road victory.
My man of the match in this game is Roald Mitchell, who had an incredible impact on the game when he came onto the field, scoring the game winner and assisting Chase Oliver for the second goal. His energy was a shot in the arm for a Wake team that was in dire need of a spark in the first half, and he was able to provide that same spark coming off the bench in the second. There are also some other performances worthy of praise, like those of Garrison Tubbs, Prince Amponsah, and Julian Kennedy, all of whom were absolutely key to keeping Wake in the game in the first half and securing the victory in the second. Although it wasn’t a complete performance by Wake, it was a victory they earned against the 13th ranked team in the country in a venue where they hadn’t lost a game this season. Most importantly, it was a win that kept Wake fighting for a national championship.
Preview: Notre Dame
With that win the Deacs advanced to the Sweet Sixteen where they will meet the ACC champs, fourth seeded Notre Dame. Head coach Chad Riley has turned the Irish from a tricky ACC opponent and tournament regular back into a national title favorite this season. They’re one of the hottest teams in the country, posting a 10-1-2 record in their last 13 after getting off to a rocky 3-4-1 start to the season. They have been unstoppable in postseason play, winning the ACC title without conceding a goal, including shutouts on the road against Louisville and NCAA tournament 5 seed Pittsburgh, as well as one in the ACC final against NCAA 7th seeded Duke. They received a bye through the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but picked up right where they left off with a 3-0 demolition of Villanova. Wake has the better of the all time series, holding a 7-4-2 mark over the Irish, the most recent of which was a 3-2 thriller in South Bend last season. Kyle Holcomb would score the late winner in that one and Cole McNally had one of his finest games for the Deacs as they continued that year’s trend of scoring late goals to steal results. In tournament play, Wake and the Irish have 2 all time meetings, and both were significant. Austin da Luz scored a late overtime winner to send Wake to the College Cup in 2007 en route to a national title, while the Irish powered through the Deacs 4-2 in the 2013 Sweet Sixteen en route to their sole national title. With a date with Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight on the line, the stakes could not be higher in this one.
Tactically, the Irish are the kind of team that Wake has had all kinds of trouble with in recent years. They’re a physical squad that is a solid team throughout; they don’t give up a whole lot of chances and they win a large portion of their duels. They line up in a 4-4-2, usually only pressing with their two strikers and settling into more of a mid block behind them. On the ball, they like to go quickly, usually up the flanks, overloading both wings with their fullbacks. They are absolutely ruthless on the counter, even when the first attempt doesn’t go in it feels like they are right on top of every rebound that could pop out, as they counterpress very aggressively after their counters. In addition to the very real danger they present in open play, they are even more dangerous on set pieces, something that Wake really struggles with. They treat throw ins high up the field like corners, throwing them long into the area, and are even more dangerous on those than they are on conventional set plays. Considering the struggles Wake has had on this front, especially with long throws, this is an extremely challenging matchup. In all likelihood, Wake will be able to possess the ball in this game however, and they are very capable of methodically working their way through a mid block. The Deacs will need to show great poise and intensity to come out of this game with a victory against a committed, physical team like this.
The Notre Dame player I would keep an eye on is number 27 Jack Lynn. Lynn has been one of the top strikers in college soccer for a couple of years now, and his high level production has allowed the Irish to fly to the great heights they have this season. With 9 goals and 4 assists, he is the team leader in goals and points (22). He has a nice touch and a nose for goal, always seeming to end up in the right spots in the area, and of course he is a composed finisher. If the Deacs let Lynn get touches in the box, he’ll punish them in a big way. As for Wake, my player to watch is Garrison Tubbs. Tubbs has played well in his last few games, registering 3 assists in his previous four appearances for Wake as well as some good defensive outings. He’s become one of Wake’s key attacking outlets, and in this game he’ll be tasked with some difficult responsibilities, both needing to lock down the right flank of Wake’s defense against a team that likes to overload out wide, and needing to create some magic going forward as well. He’s starting to return to the form that we saw out of him last season, when he looked like one of the best defenders in college soccer, and if he is able to keep up this form Wake will be in a great spot to win this game.
Kickoff for this game is set for 5:00 at Alumni Stadium in South Bend.