At 9:00 tonight in Cary, North Carolina, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (12-2-2) face another tough team in the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen, the Kentucky Wildcats (12-4-2) out of the Conference USA. The Deacs come into this one off of a 3-2 win against Coastal Carolina at Spry, with an Omar Hernandez brace and an own goal propelling them past the Sun Belt Conference champions. Kentucky, ranked 24th in the final United Soccer Coaches’ Poll, dispatched of the then undefeated champions of the America East, the New Hampshire Wildcats by a score of 2-0. New Hampshire’s Oneil Smith-Elias was issued an early red card, which allowed Kentucky to earn a comfortable result against the 11th ranked team in the final coaches’ poll. This is another game that represents a clash of styles that sets up an intriguing 90+ minutes.
These two teams haven’t played one another since an exhibition in 2015, during Bobby Muuss’ first year as head coach, where the Deacs won 3-0. But that does little to set the scene for this game 5 and a half years later. To put it simply this year, Kentucky have been a hard team to beat. They’ve gone to overtime 8 times and 7 of those times have been during this spring window, in which they have posted a 7-3-2 record. They finished 3-3-1 in the Conference USA, good enough for joint third place in a conference that sent three teams to the tournament, including 8th seeded Marshall. They’ve also had matchups with ACC opponents this season, defeating Duke twice, in the fall and the spring, as well as defeating Louisville, although they did lose their season opener 1-0 to Notre Dame. They also have significant tournament experience, as they qualified for the 2019 and 2018 tournaments, going on an Elite Eight run in 2018 before being felled by eventual national champions Maryland.
In terms of their tactical setup, the Wildcats play a 4-4-2 that plays a bit more narrow than the traditional setup. In attack, they are very direct. They play a lot of balls in the air toward their forwards looking to create off of hold up play or knockdowns, while usually looking to their two fullbacks to provide width, also looking for underlaps from their wingers and forwards. Defensively, they press doggedly after losing the ball, but off of restarts they tend to settle into a mid or deep block, only moving their midfielders around to press when the ball comes near the sidelines. They’re another big, physical team that is strong in the air, committed, and organized. This presents a similar challenge to what Coastal Carolina offered Wake, except this team likes to play even more balls in the air and is a lot sharper on set pieces, which Wake has had some struggles with. Wake will likely have some trouble against a team that doesn’t commit many numbers forward, and will need to find ways to cut through what will likely be two banks of 4 inside the 35 yard line when they enter Kentucky’s half after a counterpressing opportunity has gone by the wayside for the Wildcats. It will be a conflict between pragmatic and positive soccer that should be an interesting tactical matchup.
Ones to Watch
#18 Bailey Rouse (MF): Bailey Rouse is the prototype for what a midfielder should be in a system like Kentucky’s. He’s tall, committed, physical, a good decisionmaker, and a decent passer. He wins a lot of balls in the middle of the field, in the air or otherwise, and is usually the deepest midfielder in the formation. He isn’t the kind of player who I could see dictating the tempo of the game, but he is a good disruptor and can pick out a decent pass here and there, and even chip in some goals. He sits on 3 goals and 2 assists from the middle of the park, a decent tally for that position, and has played in every game for the Wildcats this season. His ability to disrupt the play and win balls will likely be key in deciding this one.
#7 Daniel Evans (FW): With the status of Eythor Byorgolfsson unknown for this game, Evans’ performance will be key. A smaller forward, he plays off of a bigger forward, like Byorgolfson, and finds little spaces or gaps in the defense in which to operate. He has excellent energy and always presses with great intensity, and has a great ability to get in behind and make nice interchanges in tight spots going forward. He is tied for the team lead with 4 goals, also adding 3 assists, but has benefitted greatly from playing off of a talented hold up forward like Bjorgolfsson, who has 4 goals and 4 assists this year and did not play against UNH or in their regular season finale with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Potentially with a backup starting, Evans will need to produce at a higher level.
#4 Holland Rula (DF): With Jahlane Forbes questionable for this game, a lot more responsibility will likely be placed on Rula to help create from the left side of the field, along with fulfilling his defensive duties. He has registered 3 assists in his 14 games, and has shown great chemistry with Forbes on that side, as well as a putting in some excellent defensive performances, especially during the fall window where he really had some excellent games in that regard. Wake will need to get some width to stretch this Kentucky team out going forward, as well as needing their fullbacks to have strong games against overloads on the flanks. Rula will need to put in a strong shift tonight to provide on both ends of the field for Wake.
#12 Takuma Suzuki (MF): Suzuki is a player who doesn’t really get talked about a lot for Wake, which is unfair to him. He is exactly the kind of player that Wake needs in its midfield so that the whole system can run. He always seems to make the right pass and keeps the ball well. He has a bit more bite than does the more attack minded Jake Swallen. Generally, he just does the little things right, and little plays that he can make to keep possession or move the ball are key to keeping a possession team like Wake in control. This game, he’ll likely be tasked with winning a lot of second balls and some aerial duels, which will have a huge effect on the way this game is played. Wake prefers to play with the ball in the ground, at their feet, while Kentucky likes to lump it forward in the air to create havoc. This weekend, Wake was able to win a lot of their duels and a lot of second balls from a much larger Coastal Carolina team, and Suzuki was key in that. Against Kentucky, he’ll need to have a similar performance to last week for Wake to play the game on its terms.