The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (15-4, 7-4 ACC) shocked the college soccer world on Sunday night in their first ACC Tournament appearance since 2017, issuing the Duke Blue Devils only their second home loss of the season to move on to the ACC Tournament semifinals in Cary tonight. It was the biggest win that the program has picked up in some time, but the road does not get any easier for the Deacs as they’ll face the Florida State Seminoles, who were the undefeated #1 team in the country until they lost to Duke and tied current #1 UVA in their final two games of the regular season. It’s been an incredible run for Wake to get here, and there is no reason as to why it can’t continue.
I may run out of superlatives to describe this performance by the Deacs, as they went to Koskinen Stadium in Durham to face the then #2 Duke Blue Devils (now #6, 13-3-1, 7-3-1 ACC) and came out with a 2-1 victory. The Deacs matched Duke’s intensity and defended resolutely throughout this game, frustrating a potent Duke attack. They controlled the midfield in the first half, and although they were fighting against the tide for a lot of the second half, they defended valiantly, and when they finally did concede the team responded in incredible fashion. It was a mercurial performance from almost every player on the field for Wake, and credit needs to be given to Tony da Luz for his coaching performance this game.
To start the first half, the Deacs came out in a different formation, with coach da Luz setting the Deacs up in a 4-4-2 diamond instead of their typical 4-3-3. It worked to absolute perfection, as the Deacs controlled the middle of the field, moving the ball to their will and also preventing the Blue Devils from playing through the center with the sheer volume of bodies in that part of the field. Their press was getting home and Duke was struggling to do much of anything. Even when they got into Wake’s half, the Deacon defense turned them away at every opportunity, and the Blue Devils weren’t even get the ball into the box. Wake would make this period of dominance count in the 29th minute, as Malaika Meena would find Nikayla Small on the left side of the box in a ton of space. Small would send the ball across to Jenna Menta inside the six, who would poke it into the open goal to give Wake a deserved lead. They’d carry it into the half, as they continued to contain Duke and remain not totally dominant in the game, but firmly in control.
In the second half, Duke came out looking get back in the contest, piling the pressure on the Wake backline, sending heaps of players forward. However, the Wake defense continued to repel their attacks before they could even work their way into the box. The Deacs would weather the storm through the first 15 minutes, and the game would settle for a while afterwards. However, as the game entered its final 20 minutes Duke began staging another assault on Wake’s defense, and the Deacs had no response other than winning the ball back and hoofing it away. They’d lost control of the game and would have to defend for their lives for its remainder. But this was a near impossible ask of a team, and Duke would capitalize when they finally got a chance. In the 84th minute, freshman sensation Michelle Cooper would get the ball out on the left side of the field and beat two defenders to get loose, and would send the it across to Olivia Migli at the back post. Migli would make no mistake, hitting it back across goal to tie the game up. Wake responded positively and immediately, however, as Jenna Menta would find herself with the ball on the right flank, and cross it into the box soon after kickoff. There were no Wake players in the area, but a miscommunication between goalkeeper Ruthie Jones and defender Emily Royson would lead to Royson attempting to clear the ball, and slicing it into her own goal, giving the Deacs the lead back after only 20 seconds. The Deacs would see out the rest of the game and, as the buzzer sounded, the Wake bench rushed the field, the coaches came together in a group embrace, and the traveling fans made their appreciation felt. The Deacs defeated the Blue Devils on the road and advanced in the ACC Tournament.
As for player of the match in this one, there are a litany of Deacs to choose from. Ryanne Brown had an incredible defensive performance at the right back spot. Nikayla Small made her return to the starting lineup and made her presence felt with an assist. Jenna Menta got a goal and sent in the cross that led to the second goal in what was another strong performance for her. But for me, the player of the game was center back Zara Chavoshi. Chavoshi was absolutely unconscious in this game, holding one the best attacking players in the nation in Michelle Cooper in check for the full 90 minutes, excluding her assist on the goal. She was not only winning her duels, working the ball around well, and staying step for step with her attacker, but she was doing this to the point that the Blue Devils couldn’t get a touch in Wake’s box, settling for weak long shots that hardly troubled Kaitlyn Parks. She was incredible, and was one of the key reasons Wake won this game.
Preview: Florida State
The Deacs will go from playing one #2 ranked team to another, as they will face off with the #2 Florida State Seminoles (14-1-2, 7-1-2 ACC) in Cary. FSU is one of the truly elite teams in the country, and were undefeated until Duke issued them their first loss on October 24th. However, they’ve been struggling lately, albeit against top competition, having tied UNC and UVA in addition to the loss to Duke in their last three games for an 0-1-2 mark in that span. Wake has the advantage in the all time series between the two squads, holding a 13-12-5 mark over the Noles, including wins in each of their last three matchups. However, FSU is a staggering 5-1 against the Deacs in postseason play, with the Deacs’ sole victory coming in the 2010 ACC Tournament quarterfinals by a 3-1 scoreline en route to an ACC Championship win. If the Deacs want to achieve that same goal this season, they’ll need to get through Florida State once more.
Tactically the Noles line up in a 3-4-3 and love to possess the ball. They employ a fairly effective counterpress and generally settle into a mid block when the counterpress doesn’t get home. They’re a team that does well in tight spaces and is clinical in front of goal, and can also punish you from distance, as they have a few players with a knack for scoring from distance. Really, they are a complete team, and play in a patient style that can either be totally neutralized by the mid block that Wake has taken to employing in big matchups or that can give the Deacs real trouble if they are able to stretch them out. For Wake, the key in this one is doing the same thing that they did against Duke: get a lead in the first half and force the other team to chase the game in the second. If they can defend as they did against Duke they have a very good chance to win this game.
As for players to watch, the one to be mindful of for FSU is Beata Olsson. The center forward has been exceptional this season, with 11 goals and 1 assist so far. She’s got great feet, makes great runs, has exceptional pace, and, most importantly for a center forward, is a great finisher. She is a player Wake absolutely cannot lose around the penalty area with the danger she presents when she finds the ball in that part of the field. As for Wake, the player that will be the biggest key to Wake winning this game is Nikayla Small. Small has been the Deacs’ best player this season in the middle of the field, and she’ll be tasked with turning defense to attack for Wake. She is so sharp on the ball, a great decisionmaker, and has an incredible motor. All of these characteristics have made her indispensable, and she’ll need to be the best player she can be tonight in order to win the midfield battle against a strong FSU group.
Kickoff at WakeMed Soccer Park tonight is scheduled for 8:00, soon after the other ACC semifinal, Clemson vs. UVA, is expected to finish.