The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (10-5-1, 4-3-1 ACC) wrapped up their regular season slate this past Friday against Syracuse, and tonight will open up ACC Tournament play at home as the sixth overall seed in the bracket. It’s been an up and down season so far for Wake, as the Deacs have struggled through some lukewarm form. They’ve been playing their best ball all season down the stretch though, and are winners of 6 of their last 7, although the lone loss came to a BC squad that the Deacs were expected to beat. They’re certainly a dark horse for the ACC Tournament if they can be more consistent, but they have to look at the difficult test in front of them before they look forward to the hardware. But before looking at either of those, let’s look back to senior night last week.
The Demon Deacons held their senior night festivities for Kyle Holcomb and Holland Rula last Friday night ahead of their matchup with the Syracuse Orange (8-7-2, 2-5-1 ACC) and would come out of the matchup on top in a shutout. It wasn’t Wake’s best performances for sure, as they did struggle to deal with Syracuse’s physicality. The Deacs were pretty sloppy throughout as well, giving Cuse a few opportunities to get back into the game, but they would ultimately weather the Orange’s second half storm without giving one up. With the win, Wake climbed back over .500 in conference, and guaranteed themselves the privilege of hosting an ACC Tournament game. These are the games that Wake should be winning, and although they didn’t play their best game, they got the three points that they expected to have at the end of the 90 minutes.
The first half was a back and forth affair, with Wake struggling to play out of their own half, but getting some good attacks going when they did. As for the Orange, their press was able to win them the ball high up the field, but they couldn’t create any concrete chances from those spots. The game seemed to be destined to go into the half tied, with neither team really doing enough to deserve going ahead, but that changed when Baba Niang came onto the field. Only moments after he came on, in his first appearance since August 26th, he would receive a pass inside from Garrison Tubbs 40 yards out and carry it towards goal. No one stepped out to him until it was too late, and he cut by a defender at the top of the box and lashed one from 20 yards out that would hit the underside of the crossbar and go over the goal line to give Wake the lead in 39th minute. The bench exploded in celebration as Niang sprinted over to hug Bobby Muuss in a nice moment for Niang after all of the time he had to spend on the sidelines injured. As the halftime buzzer sounded, the Deacs would go into the break up a goal, but knowing that they would need to put in a better shift in the second if they were going to come out with the result they wanted.
Wake got off to the perfect start out of the break, getting a second goal to seemingly put the game out of reach only five minutes after the break. It was the senior night honoree Kyle Holcomb who would score, as he worked Buster Sjoberg off the ball after a long ball forward from Omar Hernandez, then cutting across Olu Oyegunie and then smacking it back across goal to beat Russell Shealy in goal and double the Deacon lead. The rest of the half was Wake trying to survive, however, as they got much sloppier as the game wore on. Turnovers in their own half were plentiful, and on the break they just were not sharp enough with their passes and decision making. Syracuse started to look a lot sharper going forward, and got some good chances, both through open play and on set pieces, but Trace Alphin was equal to all of them, as he put in the best performance of his Wake career so far. Ultimately, the two goals were enough, and Wake picked up the last three points available this season. As for man of the match in this one, it has to be the keeper Trace Alphin, who made 8 second half saves to preserve the shutout and the win for the Deacs. His two center backs, Nico Benalcazar and Prince Amponsah, also had good games in front of him that warrant recognition, but Alphin to me was the standout player of this game.
With that win the Deacs secured a match at home against one of their bogey teams, the Virginia Cavaliers (6-8-3, 2-5-1 ACC). The Hoos have absolutely dominated Wake in the long history of this matchup, holding a 39-13-8 record against the Deacs, also having never lost a postseason game between the two teams. The Hoos are one of the blue bloods of college soccer, but have had a couple of tough seasons in a row now, and will likely need to win the ACC Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. They missed the NCAA Tournament last year, but still got the better of the Deacs in their fall ACC Tournament meeting, as Cabrel Happi Kamseu scored a brace to defeat a Wake team that saw a COVID breakout decimate their roster a week prior. It was an extremely disappointing result for Wake, who felt that they were the favorites for the ACC crown when they were fully healthy. This matchup is traditionally one between top 5 teams, but both teams have had their struggles this season and now will have an early ACC Tournament matchup.
Tactically, George Gelnovatch lines his Hoos up in a 4-2-3-1 and tends to have his team settle into a mid block and get very compact while defending. It really turns the middle of the field into a marsh that teams have a hard time breaking through. UVA doesn’t commit many numbers forward, and tends to rely on set pieces, counter attacks, and the individual brilliance of their striker to get them through games. This doesn’t lead to many chances, but the Hoos are a clinical team and convert a decent enough proportion of those chances to compete in the ACC. Lately, they have not been as solid as they have in years past, looking sloppy on set pieces, making some silly defensive errors, which has forced the Hoos to have to play from behind more than they are used to, and has led to more losses than they have suffered in seasons past. But regardless, Wake will be in a dogfight in this game. The way that UVA plays matches up very well to the way Wake does with how much it cuts off the middle of the field. Wake will need to be able to have quick transitions, win second balls, and hope their wide players can get isolated to make things happen. It isn’t a tough matchup on paper, but with UVA’s track record against Wake and the way that their style matches up with the Deacs, it will be a tough result to pick up.
The main danger man for the Hoos is number 7 Leo Afonso. The Brazilian sophomore is not the dominant physical forward that the UVA program tends to recruit, like Daryl Dike and Cabrel Happi Kamseu who gave the Deacs fits in the last two years, but he is still a danger. He’s a player that likes to get in behind, but can also come back to the ball and hold the ball up for his teammates. A strong finisher and a player that can also deliver a good ball, Afonso leads UVA in goals with 8 and 2 assists, leading the team in points with 18. He’ll be expected to shoulder most of the attacking load for the Cavaliers tonight, as he has for most of the season. As for Wake, the key player is Kyle Holcomb. Holcomb has been the Deacs’ most productive player this season on paper, registering 8 goals and 4 assists, but he has had some woes in front of goal. In this game, Wake in all likelihood will struggle to create many chances, but when they do work the ball into the box, it will likely end up at his feet. Last game, he scored the only chance he got, a beautiful goal that recalled his form at the end of last season and in the NCAA Tournament. If he can continue being efficient in front of goal, then Wake will be in good shape for this game and going forward.
Kickoff for this one is set for 8:00 and it will air on ACC Network.