Tonight at 7:00 the No. 4 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-2-1) men’s soccer team faces their toughest test of the spring, traveling to Historic Riggs Field to take on the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers (12-2-1). Last week, the Deacs picked up another dramatic win, with an Omar Hernandez powered comeback giving them a big win against the Louisville Cardinals in overtime by a score of 2-1. Clemson made a comeback of their own last week, defeating the Boston College Eagles by a score of 3-2 after trailing 2-1, mirroring Wake’s comeback win against the Eagles in their spring ACC opener. These are two teams who have had to make personnel and tactical adjustments due to losses from the spring and due to injury, but they still sit atop the Atlantic Division standings, with neither having lost yet this spring.
Wake and Clemson have faced one another two times already this season, with the first game being a 2-1 loss for Wake at Historic Riggs Field, and the second being a 2-0 victory for the Deacs at Spry. The difference between the two games was night and day; on the road the Deacs had no answer for Clemson’s press and were totally suffocated out of the game, while in the second they were able to move the ball pretty easily around and through the Clemson press, making it almost a total non-factor. In the all time series, Wake leads 24-19-7, but Clemson have only lost 1 of their last 23 home games, in a penalty kick shootout with the Stanford Cardinal in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals in 2019. And Wake has won at Historic Riggs Field before, with their most recent win there coming in 2018 to the tune of 3-0.
What is most important to note about these teams, however, is the losses they have had to deal with from spring to fall, as well as due to injury. Wake lost five players who were major starters in the fall to MLS, as well Michael DeShields who missed the fall window due to injury and made the jump to MLS. Wake also lost Kyle McCurley and Koby Carr to the transfer portal, as well as Tyrell Moore and Dom Peters to graduation. Adding onto that, they have also lost Garrison Tubbs, David Wrona, Takuma Suzuki, and now Holland Rula to injury in the spring window, as well as still not having Aristotle Zarris available after a knee injury last season. All of their timetables for return are unknown. Clemson has had a similar personnel problem, with Kimarni Smith, Philip Mayaka, and Grayson Barber all making the jump to MLS, and Alvaro Gomez, who played a lot of minutes for them this season, being absent from the last 2 games. They managed to retain the services of Justin Malou even though he was picked by an MLS team, but ultimately the losses have still piled up for Clemson, although they haven’t felt it quite as badly as the Deacs.
As for tactics, the matchup is a clash of styles. Clemson plays a 4-3-3 with a positionally fluid front three, and presses the back line intensely with that three and midfield, though more pragmatically than Louisville, picking when they should send the press more ferociously rather than sending waves of pressers at the backline. Going forward, Clemson likes to work the ball into wide areas with big switches and likes to play out of the back. Wake will stick to its normal formation, what I would class as a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-3-3, with a lone striker and attacking midfielder left to press while the two other midfielders drop back deeper. Wake is a more pragmatic and patient team than Clemson; they don’t press with great numbers or intensity, nor do they move the ball with great haste, always patiently passing the ball around waiting for an opening. Ultimately, this game will be decided by whether Wake can be the possession team it wants to be in the face of an excellent pressing team like Clemson. If they cannot, it will be a tough trip for the Deacs.
Ones To Watch:
#8 Callum Johnson (W/FW/MF): Callum Johnson has been a great addition to Clemson from the transfer portal, with the redshirt senior transferring from Boston College after making 52 appearances and contributing 8 goals and 10 assists to the Eagles in his 3 seasons played there. Johnson was primarily a midfielder over the course of his collegiate career, but has played all over the field for Mike Noonan’s Tigers. With the losses of Grayson Barber and Kimarni Smith, Johnson has had to move up to the front line for the Tigers after primarily playing in the middle of the field in the fall, and he has not skipped a beat. With 4 goals and 4 assists, he leads the current Clemson roster in points with 12. With quick feet, deceptive quickness, a solid shot, and a great soccer brain, Johnson is a player the Wake defense will have to be mindful of.
#21 Ousmane Sylla (MF): With the loss of Philip Mayaka, in my opinion the best player in college soccer, Clemson needed to find a way to compensate for his presence in the middle of the field. While I wouldn’t say Sylla is a direct replacement, as there are definitely differences in their games, he has been a revelation in the middle of the field for the Tigers. The freshman from Dakar, Senegal joined Clemson in January after not logging a minute in the fall, and has lived up to his hype as a touted prep school prospect. Although he has a small frame, he knows how to use it, and never seems physically overmatched. He is solid defensively, and is even better going forward, showing great feet in tight areas and tricking defenders with his changes of speed. He is a great passer and always seems to make the right play when he has the ball. He is a player that, in my opinion, has a very bright future ahead of him.
#14 Jahlane Forbes (DF/W): It is unclear where Jahlane Forbes plays this week, whether it is left wing or left back, but his contributions will be key in this game. Forbes has been arguably the team’s best player this spring, although it hasn’t always shown up on the stat sheet. His ability to get past defenders and create opportunities on the attacking end has been stellar this season, and he has also done well defensively winning the ball back for Wake and turning defense into attack. With Holland Rula in all likelihood out for this game, Forbes may be making the move back to left back, where he looked very good last week when plugged in there after Rula’s injury. Forbes also played left wing in the overtime period, however, so he could play in either spot this week, but regardless of position if he is able to do what he normally does going forward, he could be a press-buster for the Deacs and help neutralize Clemson’s vaunted press.
#16 Hosei Kijima (DF/MF): Kijima is another player whose position I am unsure of for this week. He played left back behind Forbes in overtime but played in the middle for the rest of the game. Either way, his performance will be key. Wake has had some trouble winning balls in the middle of the field, but Kijima has been good at doing so since making the move from right back. His energy and recovery runs have been key to Wake defensively, but he does need to improve in possession. He has had some struggles making the switch into the middle in possession, and Wake this week will need someone to be able to control the tempo and make plays that will break the Clemson press. Kijima has been primarily responsible for putting out fires on the defensive end, but his role will need to expand for this game. He and Jake Swallen will need to put on a great performance in the middle for Wake to come out of this game with a result.
With Wake sitting at 3-0-1 in ACC for the spring and Clemson at 4-0, this game has huge implications for the NCAA Tournament bid available this spring, with the winner of the Atlantic Division playing the winner of the Coastal Division to decide who plays Clemson for the automatic NCAA tournament bid. With a win tonight at Clemson, Wake puts themselves in prime position to win the Atlantic and play for a shot at the auto bid, while a Clemson win tonight secures them a date with the Coastal Division winners.
The heavyweight fight is set for 7:00 tonight.