Today at 5:00 in Cary, the Deacs have a chance to progress into the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in two years, and can do it at the expense of a hated rival. For the second time this season, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (13-2-2) will face the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4-4), this time with a trip to the College Cup on the line. The Deacs come into this one after a 2-1 win against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen powered by Kyle Holcomb’s brace, while the Tar Heels come in after a big upset of 4th seeded Stanford, with Joe Pickering scoring the lone goal in that game. This game will see two of the most hated rivals in college soccer face off with two of its best coaches and some of its most exciting young players going at it, so it is hard not to get very excited about this matchup and the writing of a new page in the history of the Wake-Carolina rivalry.
Although UNC leads the all time series with Wake 22-14-10, they’ve had a dismal recent run, going winless against Wake since 2010, going 0-4-2 against the Deacs since that 1-0 win in Chapel Hill 10 years ago. Their most recent meeting was a win for Wake during the fall season in overtime against the then 3rd ranked Tar Heels, as an early Omar Hernandez cross from the left flank found the head of Kyle Holcomb, who nodded it past Alec Smir who was left to watch it dribble into his net after he failed to get anything coming off of his line. Wake had the better of the chances in that game, but the fall season might as well have been 4 years ago with the amount of overhaul this Wake roster has seen, losing 6 players to the pro ranks and 10 players in total leaving the program.
Carolina, on the other hand, have retained an almost identical roster to their fall squad, only losing defender Matthew Constant to the MLS SuperDraft. Although they got off to a shaky start this spring, losing their opener 1-0 to Liberty, they finished this window with a 4-2-1 record, including a 3-0 thumping of the Pittsburgh Panthers, who are the 2 seed in this tournament and topped the United Soccer Coaches’ poll for a good portion of this season. What is most important to note about this team is that, above all else, they are difficult to beat. They’re a very stingy team, keeping 8 shutouts in 16 games, only allowing 9 goals total in that span, and 3 of those goals came in a 3-3 tie with Clemson, who were the top seed in this year’s tournament. They have not lost by more than one goal since 2014. Carlos Somoano’s teams are built to stay in games by giving up nothing and taking the few chances they get. It is an approach that is well suited for the tournament, and has worked for the Tar Heels so far, as they squeaked out a victory on penalties against UNC Charlotte after a 1-1 game and then upset the fourth seeded Stanford Cardinal in the following round. Tactically, UNC’s setup is pragmatic and effective, as Somoano sets his team up in a 4-4-2 primarily, using his two strikers to press the backline and dragging a midfielder or winger up if an opportunity to win the ball presents itself. If not, the team settles into a mid block and suffocates attacks until it can recover the ball. With the ball, they look to find space behind the defense either with direct balls over the top or with balls up the flanks to their wingers. They have the capability to break quickly, but they pick their spots to go forward with numbers or to retain the ball. It is an extremely organized and structured system that runs well with the committed, feisty, energetic, experienced group Somoano has at his disposal. They’re dangerous on set plays not because of overwhelming height but because of good deliveries and play design. Wake will need to avoid making the same mistakes they did early in the Kentucky game, as UNC will likely come out of the gates with a similar energy, and are set up in a similar formation. Wake will also need to find ways to move around the UNC mid block, with the two banks of four that UNC deploys being a very difficult formation to crack once it is set up. The Deacs will need to take advantage of their transition moments to avoid facing a fully organized mid block. All in all, this one should go down to the wire, with UNC’s setup almost always guaranteeing a close game.
Ones to Watch:
#22 Milo Garvanian (DF): After watching some more film of UNC, my opinion of Garvanian is the same as it was before the first time we played them this year. He is a solid left back defensively and can hold the ball relatively well in possession, but his main strength comes in his ability to deliver long balls and set pieces with his left foot. He set up both goals the Tar Heels have scored this tournament, putting his season total at a team leading 4 assists. He isn’t always consistent with his delivery, but he can put in a good ball, and that will challenge a Deacon team that young and not great in the air.
#9 Santiago Herrera (FW): The UCLA transfer is the perfect forward for this UNC team: he can hold his own physically, has the right energy, and is a decent finisher. He has 3 goals this season, good enough for second on the team, and is always very active in the press. He holds the ball up well and also has good enough speed to find space in behind defenders. Although he hasn’t scored in his last four games, look for him to be an active part of the UNC attack this game.
#32 Garrison Tubbs (DF): Since his return to the lineup, Garrison Tubbs has been excellent, moving from center back, where he played in the fall, to right back. He was involved with the first goal last Thursday against Kentucky, and has been very good both in his own half and going forward in the last couple of games. He’ll be key in this game to try and find space on the flanks against this UNC defense, and also will be relied upon to put out fires on the other end when the Tar Heels get a potentially dangerous transition moment. He linked up well with David Wrona last week, and he’ll need to do so again to help Wake to a big win this evening.
#24 Jake Swallen (MF): Swallen hasn’t necessarily been the cleanest midfielder on the ball this year, but his big strength this season has been finding line breaking balls to create chances. He’s shown a great ability to find a Hollywood ball through traffic, and against a team like this he will likely need to create a chance this way to get Wake a goal against such a stingy team. He’s made a great transition from attacking midfield back into the pivot this spring, and has been fine in possession as well, but if Wake are allowed to possess like they have been in previous games, a lot of this match could be the Deacs prodding at the Tar Heel mid block, and few players on the team have shown the ability to deliver a killer ball like Swallen.
If this game follows the recent trend of Wake-Carolina matchups, it won’t be an exciting one, but it will have some late drama to make up for it. With both teams having hit their strides this spring, this is an extremely intriguing matchup that presents another real challenge for Wake.