With the dust now settled on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons’ men’s soccer season, I think it is safe to say that this was the strangest season the Deacs have been involved in. Ultimately finishing as the 6th ranked team in the final United Soccer Coaches’ Poll, the Deacs went through all kinds of trials and tribulations to finish their season with a 13-3-2 mark. The Deacs occupied the top 5 of the poll through most of the fall, opening the season ranked No. 1 until a 2-1 loss at Clemson knocked them off their perch, although they recovered quickly and headed into ACC Tournament play at 7-1 with wins over then No. 3 UNC and No. 3 Clemson. The team would be struck by a COVID outbreak just prior to their matchup with the Virginia Cavaliers, and would fall to the Hoos 2-0 at Spry without the majority of their starters as well as much of the bench. This game would also mark the end of 10 Wake soccer careers, with Machop Chol, Isaiah Parente, Michael DeShields, Calvin Harris, Justin McMaster (althought he would make one appearance in the spring), and Andrew Pannenberg all moving on to the pro ranks, and Kyle McCurley, Koby Carr, Dom Peters, and Tyrrell Moore all moving on from the program, with McCurley and Carr finding new homes with the Wisconsin Badgers and UNC Charlotte 49ers respectively.
With these departures and the crushing loss to UVA, the Deacs opened the spring season ranked 6th, but continued to find ways to win with a squad made up of only 19 players, many of whom missed time, either through injury or through other circumstances, like William Valtos who joined up with the Deacs midway through the spring season after finally being able to travel to the U.S. from the Philippines. The new look Deacs finished the spring season undefeated and had an opportunity to play for the ACC’s automatic tournament bid, but a COVID outbreak inside the Syracuse program prevented the season finale from being played, a game that could have brought the Deacs to the top of the Atlantic Division and set up a matchup with the Pittsburgh Panthers, with the winner facing Clemson to decide what team received the bid. The Deacs received the 5th seed in the NCAA Tournament and won their opening matchup 3-2 against the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina, before picking up a 2-1 win in Cary against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen. Ultimately, they came up short against the North Carolina Tar Heels, losing 2-1 in Cary to send the Heels to the College Cup after they missed the tournament entirely in 2019. They would lose to the Marshall Thundering Herd, who would finish the job against the Indiana Hoosiers in the national title game in overtime to put a fitting end to a whirlwind college soccer season, with an unlikely winner and first time champion in Marshall.
So where does that leave Wake?
There were a lot of questions around Bobby Muuss’ men going into the spring season after carrying one of, if not the most talented roster in the nation into the fall season, and losing 10 of those players for the spring. Thankfully, they seem to have found a lot of answers, mostly for better, but in some cases for worse, and in some cases not at all.
- If they’re good enough, they’re old enough
After losing the players they lost from fall to spring, there were serious concerns about this Wake team with a roster primarily made up of underclassmen, with many players who played very sparingly if at all during the fall. Ultimately, the youth movement powered Wake through the regular season, with freshman like Jahlane Forbes, Hosei Kijima, and Prince Amponsah breaking out in the spring. Their efforts coupled with the continued progression of more experienced underclassmen like Jake Swallen, Nico Benalcazar, and Omar Hernandez kept Wake performing at the level that a Wake Forest team is expected to. Wake is now in the unique position where they will not need to replace any players in their squad going into next year, as there were no seniors on the spring roster for the Deacs. Somehow, with a team made up of underclassmen, the Deacs will return one of the most experienced, complete squads in the nation next year, bolstered by its top ranked recruiting class and (hopefully) the return of Aristotle Zarris, who contributed massively in 2019 before suffering a knee injury he still has not returned from.
- Never say die!
Wake from fall to spring underwent a bit of an identity change. Although relatively little changed about the way they played, their mentality changed. No longer were they the confident, self assured team that would suffocate the opposition out of the game, they were believers, they wouldn’t always be in control but they always had the belief they would find the result they wanted; no setback ever seemed to make them drop their heads, even to the bitter end. In the fall, Wake led for about 372 minutes of the 816:20 they played, while they led for about 195 of the 852:10 they played in the spring, including only leading for 49 (!!!) of the 582:10 they played in the regular season. The fall team finished 7-2 and the spring team finished 6-1-2, with its only loss coming in the NCAA tournament. While I’m sure Bobby Muuss would much rather have it the other way, having a team that always feels that the game is there to be won is a clear positive. With the talent they have, the Deacs should be able to gain more control over games in the future, but knowing that the team will most likely react well to any changes in game state has to give Coach Muuss some comfort.
- Still sharp going forward
After losing 3 key attackers and midfielder Isaiah Parente, who was the conductor of this Wake team, there were serious concerns about this Wake team’s ability to score goals. These concerns were put to rest throughout the spring, with the Deacs managing 15 goals, 3 fewer than the 18 they struck in the fall in the same number of games, a dip in production but a much smaller one than was expected. Omar Hernandez continued to blossom into one of the best attackers in the ACC, contributing 5 goals to add to his goal and 2 assists in the fall, primarily in the attacking mid spot. Kyle Holcomb hit a bit of a dry spell to start the spring after leading the team in goals in the fall, but would come to life late in the season, scoring 4 goals and assisting 1, with 3 of the goals and the assists coming in the NCAA tournament, giving him 9 goals and 2 assists on the year in total. Jahlane Forbes moved up to left wing, replacing Calvin Harris, and filled in magnificently, scoring the lone goal in the spring opener against Davidson, and adding 3 assists in the spring to go with his lone helper in the fall against Clemson, as well as sending in the ball that led to an own goal in the Coastal Carolina game. Hosei Kijima was only deployed as an attacker after the injury to Forbes in the NCAA tournament, but he had a profound influence on games with his goal contributions in the spring, scoring twice, both late in the game to defeat Boston College in the spring ACC opener, and assisting twice, both to Kyle Holcomb in the game against Kentucky. Jake Swallen was also key to the attack after moving back into the pivot, with his line breaking passing and vision making him a threat whenever he gets on the ball, as he tallied a goal and an assist in the spring to go with his 3 assists in the fall. With all of these players likely taking another step forward next year, the Wake attack will remain in good hands going forward.
- Good problems
Although Wake struggled with depth this spring, next season depth seems like it will not be a big worry at all. Center back seemed to be a position where the team could lose neither starter, but after an injury to Garrison Tubbs early in the season, Prince Amponsah came in and performed magnificently there and forced himself into a starting role, even when Tubbs came back, with Tubbs instead filling in at right back. With Isaiah Parente and key depth piece Kyle McCurley leaving after the fall, Wake had no returning natural central midfielders, but after some great performances from Jake Swallen, Takuma Suzuki, and some bright moments from Ryan Fessler in the spring, as well as the incoming additions of Nicolas Mancilla and former England youth international Tareq Shihab, that position seems to be loaded. Right back is a loaded spot, with Garrison Tubbs, as previously mentioned, starting there in the last few games of the season, with fall starter Cristian Escribano missing time with an injury. When he returns, the group will be comprised of Escribano, Tubbs, and the No. 5 rated defender in this year’s recruiting class, Bo Cummins. Center forward is equally as loaded, with Kyle Holcomb having a strong season and David Wrona behind him (although he may start on the right wing), and Julian Kennedy, Babacar Niang, Roald Mitchell, and Mwinso Denkabe all coming in the fall, although I would expect a few of these players to play on the wings with the lack of depth in those spots. Even after saying all of this, I still haven’t mentioned Hosei Kijima, because I’m not even sure what position he might play next season! He could fill in either one of the wing spots, central midfield, right or left back, and is even probably an emergency backup for the center back spots. So after going through all of this, who starts where for the Deacs next year? I’m not sure, and in this case, that’s a good thing!
- Getting up
Although this is a team that challenges for a lot of balls, and wins a lot of second balls for that matter, they struggle to win balls in the air. This is a team that lacks size, especially in central defense, so they’ve had a lot of trouble with big, physical attackers over the course of the season, as well as when defending set pieces (see: Boston College, Notre Dame, Coastal Carolina, and North Carolina games). Defensively, the team generally has played pretty well on the whole, but they seem to give up so many goals on set pieces or by losing physical or aerial battles with bigger forwards. Going forward it will be interesting to see how they mitigate this, because, while I think it is admirable that the team was able to find wins from losing positions this spring season, I don’t think that it is sustainable to continue winning games while giving away so many chances on set pieces.
Another thing this Wake team was prone to this season was mistakes. I’m not too concerned about the little mistakes players made this season, i.e. bad passes, shooting instead of passing it off, even missing big chances; these are all things that will happen to teams over the course of games and seasons. My bigger concern is some of the errors in the back or on the part of the goalkeeper that led to goals this season. the prime example would be the Nico Benalcazar turnover that led to the second Coastal Carolina goal, in their NCAA tournament matchup. If everyone played every game perfectly, there wouldn’t be any goals, but mistakes like that one can’t happen. It’s another way that teams can steal goals, and, as a result, steal wins from this team. They’re errors that turn non-dangerous situations into goal scoring opportunities when they should be easily dealt with. It happened here and there a few times this season, and really they were the reason Wake lost to Carolina in the tournament, with Wake’s wall splitting on a free kick to allow the ball through to rebound back to a Carolina player. I would put this in the category of a less pressing concern, as I think many of these mistakes come from the fact that a lot of these players are young and hadn’t played with one another enough, leading to miscommunication, or because they are still raw and inexperienced players that haven’t hit their potential yet.
- Who’s out wide?
For all the depth Wake seem to have going into next year, one thing still remains unclear. Who is playing on the wings? The left wing seems to be pretty settled, with Jahlane Forbes seeming to be the starter there, but who comes on when he comes out? Wake loves to rotate their wingers, especially when they were as loaded on the flanks as they have been the last couple of years, but now, it’s unclear if there are any players other than Forbes who can be productive. Colin Thomas showed some promise this year in limited minutes, but didn’t start when Forbes went down with an injury. On the right, the situation is even less clear, with David Wrona, a natural center forward, getting the lion’s share of minutes there in the last few games. He has been solid enough in that spot, with his primary input on the game coming from his holdup play and his energy and ability to press. The two players behind him, William Valtos and Chase Oliver, are both natural wingers, but had spring seasons they hope they can put behind them, with Valtos struggling to get minutes after joining up with the team late due to his travel issues, and Chase Oliver showing himself still to be a work in progress, with the freshman getting a good amount of time and not making an impact during these stretches. However, he did have his strongest game of the season against UNC to close things out, and it is clear that he has some talent, he just needs to adjust to the pace and physicality of the college game. Hosei Kijima also adds an interesting element to this, as he played very well on the left flank when filling in for Forbes, so he may be competing for a starting job next season. The return of Aristotle Zarris also adds another wrinkle, as he would likely walk into the starting job on the right side if he were healthy, but with him now going on two years without playing, will he be the same player he was in 2019? Wake is a team that has been very reliant on their wingers to produce in recent years, but this fall’s roster will not have guaranteed producers like they have had in years past.
Questions Yet To Be Answered
- Who’s between the sticks?
I wouldn’t put this down as a negative per say, as I think any good team, as Wake is, shouldn’t need a world beater in goal to win games, and their main concern is filling the spots in front of the man between the sticks. But it is something worth discussing. Wake goes into next year with 3 keepers on its roster at present: incumbent starter Cole McNally, the number 101 prospect in the nation Trace Alphin, and another incoming prospect in Jake Nicoll. McNally on his day, clearly, is a great shotstopper. He kept the team in the Notre Dame game to even allow the possibility of a late comeback. But, he’s had some bad days. Early in the season, as he was adjusting to the college game, he gave up some strange looking goals, particularly against Boston College. As the season went on he got better, but in the tournament, although there was little he could do about most of the goals he let in, he had some shaky moments. I expect him to have the inside track to win the job, and I can see him getting a lot better next year with his great athleticism and more time in the lab with Wake’s coaching staff, but I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if we saw a different keeper start next year, especially considering Bobby Muuss doesn’t usually give favor to incumbents if he has a player he likes waiting in the wings.
- The Kijima Problem
Hosei Kijima was one of the heroes of the spring for Wake, filling in all over the field when injuries came up. But with a fully fit squad, where does Kijima play? In the fall, Kijima was deployed almost exclusively at right back as a backup to Cristian Escribano, but in the spring he played the majority of his minutes in the middle of the field to replace Takuma Suzuki and Jake Swallen at different points when they went down with injuries, but he also saw time in other spots, including limited minutes at left back and, most interestingly, on the wing, as he filled in for Jahlane Forbes when he went down with injury in the tournament and, in my opinion, turned in his best performances of the year. But is he a starter in any of these spots? Right back seems to be locked up with either Tubbs or Escribano getting the nod there, with Bo Cummins also likely getting minutes there. Holland Rula has been a very reliable at left back, so it’s very unlikely Kijima would start there. The middle of the field is crowded now, with this recruiting class being full of players in those spots and Jake Swallen and Takuma Suzuki being penciled in as starters. Left wing is clearly not up for grabs after Jahlane Forbes’ performances. Right wing may be open, with no clear starter in that position, but will coach Muuss take him over players who are more natural wingers? After his spring season, he deserves to play, but the question remains as to where.
Now that I have finished giving my overall thoughts about the spring season, I’d like to keep your attention for at least a few more lines to give my personal spring and overall season awards.
- MVP: Omar Hernandez (MF): This was a toss up for me between him and Jahlane Forbes, who I think had better performances, but Hernandez’s impact cannot be overstated. He scored 5 this spring, all of them key goals.
- Breakout Player: Jahlane Forbes (W): Although I also considered Hosei Kijima for this spot, I think that Forbes was the team’s best and most consistent attacker throughout the spring, so he gets this award. He’s made the switch from left back wonderfully.
- Defender of the Spring: Prince Amponsah (CB): Prince has come a long way from that errant passback versus Virginia in the fall, and he has become an anchor of this Wake defense.
- MVP: Omar Hernandez (MF): There’s not much to be said here. He was a key contributor in the fall and was even more spectacular in the spring.
- Breakout Player: Garrison Tubbs (DF): Tubbs looked like an All-American in the fall at center back, and after missing some time in the spring, looked like a stud at right back as well.
- Defender of the Year: Garrison Tubbs (DF): Refer back to the lines above. Tubbs was a superstar this season, and he can only get better from here.
- Points: Kyle Holcomb (20)
- Goals: Kyle Holcomb (9)
- Assists: Isaiah Parente and Jake Swallen (4)
- Saves: Cole McNally (29)
- Goals Against Average: Andrew Pannenberg (0.84)