Editor’s Note: This is Chris’s work and am I posting on his behalf.
After a few months away, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons men’s soccer team returns to regular season action on Thursday versus the Virginia Commonwealth Rams at Spry to kick off a 2021 campaign with very high expectations. Following a spring campaign where they didn’t taste defeat until the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, the Deacs return a young, but now more experienced, squad, bolstered by the nation’s top recruiting class. In the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Poll, the Deacs were ranked number 7 in the nation, behind ACC foes the Clemson Tigers (6), the Tar Heels (4), and the Pittsburgh Panthers. As ever with Wake, they’ll be looking to bring home silverware, both conference and national, and this year they’ll have as good of a chance as they always do.
I had to write a lot more for this section in my preview of last year’s spring season, as the Deacs lost 10 players to the professional ranks and to the transfer portal, leaving a young and shorthanded squad to come out for the spring campaign. This squad only went and had an undefeated regular season, and would have had the opportunity to bring home ACC silverware in a matchup with Clemson had the Syracuse Orange program not had a COVID outbreak before the last game of the regular season, a game that had the Deacs won and Clemson lost their game to Louisville (which they did), the two would have played each other for the ACC’s automatic bid. This time around, Wake has retained every single player from the spring squad, excluding Aristotle Zarris, who has now moved on from Wake’s soccer program after suffering a knee injury in the fall of 2019 and not playing a game since then. With that 2021 spring core coming back in full, Wake is a paradoxically young and experienced team, and with the best recruiting class in the nation bolstering it, they have gained a lot this offseason as compared to all that they lost between the fall and spring windows last year.
With a recruiting class with this level of national buzz, there are many reasons to be excited about each of the players that Wake has brought in this season, so this portion of my preview will serve as an individual breakdown of all the new faces on campus for this team:
- #0 Jake Nicoll (GK): Nicoll is a goalkeeper out of The Pingry School in New Jersey, a top 20 high school soccer team nationally during his senior year. He has previously trained with the Philadelphia Union II in the USL Championship and played with the Fréjus Saint Raphaël FC U23 squad in France. With Cole McNally looking to be the clear cut starter in goal, and Trace Alphin looking to be the clear backup, Nicoll is likely a couple of years out from contributing consistently to the team.
- #1 Trace Alphin (GK): Alphin was the No. 97 prospect on the IMG Academy 150 and No. 12 goalkeeper for his class year and played in the North Carolina FC youth system. He was a United States U-17 national team call-up in 2018 and previously trained with then USL Championship side North Carolina FC’s first team and FC Helsingor in Denmark. Again, he is likely the second choice goalkeeper behind incumbent starter Cole McNally.
- #2 Bo Cummins (RB): Cummins was one of the highest rated prospects in the nation for his class year, rated the 28th best prospect in the nation by IMG Academy and the 5th ranked defender by TopDrawerSoccer. He played a year of high school soccer in Michigan, where he led International Prep to an undefeated season before heading to the New York Red Bulls youth academy. He then moved up to New York Red Bulls II, who play in the USL Championship, where he played the last leg of their 2020 season at both right and left back, finishing the season with a goal and an assist. He joined up with Wake last spring and trained with the team although he was ineligible for selection. Bo offers a lot of speed, directness, and athleticism down the right flank, and can put in a decent ball as well. His game is still a bit rough around the edges, but he offers a very different look at right back to Cristian Escribano, who started the lion’s share of games last season, and Garrison Tubbs, who played there upon returning from injury, and who is also better utilized at center back.
- #8 Babacar Niang (AM): Based on what I saw during Wake’s final exhibition against Coastal Carolina, Babacar Niang might be the most exciting member of this class. Niang was rated as a 4-star recruit by TopDrawerSoccer and the No. 78 recruit in the nation by IMG Academy coming out of The Pennington School in New Jersey, a power in the prep school scene. Niang was an All-American, Prep School Player of the Year, and All-Area Player of the Year. Niang is much more of a Bruno Lapa style number ten, not as direct as Omar Hernandez, having the game flow through him and playing much more with his back to goal. Niang almost never loses the ball, and plays wonderfully in tight spaces. He is a good athlete to accompany this, and showed great energy. He looks like he could be a future star in the college game, and adds another option to a position where Wake was light.
- #9 Roald Mitchell (CF): Mitchell, like Cummins, is a former player for the New York Red Bulls Academy and New York Red Bulls II, and a player I am very high on having seen him play for NYRBII in the USL Championship this season. He was rated as a 4-star prospect by TopDrawerSoccer and as the No. 91 recruit in the country by IMG Academy, and played 571 minutes for NYRBII this season, registering 2 goals and 2 assists for them. Mitchell has an incredible motor and holds the ball up very well, while also showing flashes of brilliance in front of goal and with his feet (see: goal against the Charleston Battery). If Mitchell can acclimate himself to a much more patient and possession based system at Wake Forest, which I believe he can and will, he will be a great college striker.
- #11 Leo Guarino (W): Guarino was a New York City FC Academy player and also made appearances for the New York Cosmos before coming to Wake Forest. From what I have seen of Guarino, he looks like he is a more technical winger, and will be very positive in tight spaces. Wake does not appear to have clear starters on either wing, so Guarino will likely get a lot of minutes this year to develop.
- #15 Mwinso Denkabe (W): Denkabe was a member of the San Jose Earthquakes academy as well as the Silicon Valley Soccer Academy before coming to Wake. Contrary to Guarino, Denkabe looks to be a much more athletic winger, using his speed and changes of pace to get to the line. He knows how to use his fram to keep the ball, but that final ball does appear to need more work. With open spots on the flanks, Denkabe should also contend for big minutes this season.
- #21 Julian Kennedy (CF/W): Kennedy is another one of the gems of this year’s signing class, as he scored a bunch of goals at the academy level of Orlando City, and also made 8 appearances for Orlando City B in USL League One. He played on the left wing during the last exhibition game versus Coastal Carolina, but it seemed clear that it was not his natural position, and that he is much more comfortable at center forward. Wake has a lot of center forwards this season, so some players will likely need to move around, with David Wrona already appearing to be moving out wide to accommodate a shortage of experienced wingers, and Kennedy may too be forced out there to help this shortage.
- #22 Tareq Shihab (CM): Shihab comes to Wake by way of the Brighton & Hove Albion Academy in England. He made appearances for the England U-15, 16, and 17 squads before coming to Wake. Players with this kind of pedigree do not often end up in the United States to play college soccer, so Shihab could be a huge addition if he lives up to his billing. He is in a position where Wake does seem to have a lot of players, but there are not many players like Shihab, who looks to be more of a true defensive midfielder, who knows how to use his body and win balls.
- #28 Nico Mancilla (CM): Mancilla comes to Wake from the Universidad de Chile academy (who are a professional soccer team), and is another player who will likely play in that 8 role. He seems to be more attack minded than Shihab, and operates well in tight spaces and linking play from the defense to attack. He’ll have a tough time getting minutes over similar players like Jake Swallen and Takuma Suzuki, but it remains to be seen how he slots in this year.
Strengths and Question Marks
This preseason, the Deacs have played 2 games this preseason, getting a 2-0 win in Greenville, SC versus the Furman Paladins and a 2-0 loss to the No. 25 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, the latter of which I was able to view in person, while the former only had a live stats broadcast and no video. Based on the Coastal Carolina game, and on what we can glean from the Furman game, Wake will create a lot of chances. In the first half of the Coastal Carolina game, Wake should have scored 2 or 3, and would have were it not for some heroics from the Coastal keeper. The stats from the Furman game painted a game played mostly in the Paladins’ half, with the Deacs dominating in shots and getting a lot of corners as well (these unfortunately were the only stats kept). The Deacs also clearly possess the ball well and play the game on their own terms the majority of the time. It has been the philosophy of Wake Forest men’s soccer under Bobby Muuss to play out of the back, control possession, and methodically break teams down, mostly down the flanks, and they will look to do much of the same this season. The Deacs also appear to be a serious set piece threat now, with Omar Hernandez looking like one of the best dead ball specialists in college soccer, both putting free kicks in the net directly and delivering great balls from free kicks and corners, and with taller players joining the squad and returning from injuries, like Garrison Tubbs and Roald Mitchell, the Deacs should have another way to put balls in the net. The Deacs also seem to have good problems at center forward, in the midfield, and at center back, with a glut of quality players able to play these positions. However, the Deacs are not without their flaws. They have serious problems defending set pieces. Although they have more height on the team than last year, they are still on the shorter end as a team, and with Cole McNally in net, who is a good shot stopper but prefers to stay on his line rather than coming out to claim balls into the area or punch them away, which makes set pieces toward Wake’s goal a serious danger. The first goal for Coastal Carolina came off of a long throw into the front post, which was flicked on to the back stick to be tapped in, with Wake not tracking any of the runners in the box. Although they are loaded at several spots, the two winger spots present an issue. While Wake has typically been built on the backs of elite wingers, which rang true at the start of the 2020 season with Machop Chol and Calvin Harris having excellent windows before moving onto the pro ranks, but now it does not seem that Wake has any starters that can be penciled into the lineup, nor that have the past production to inspire confidence. That being said, Chase Oliver looked like a different player in the Coastal Carolina game, showing much more confidence and making better decisions on the ball. David Wrona will likely take one of the spots, likely opposite Oliver, and he has shown himself to have the ability to contribute, especially in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet. I wouldn’t necessarily call winger a weakness, but it is definitely an unknown quantity for the Deacs this season.
Much fewer questions surround the Deacs this fall than did at the beginning of the spring season, with the facets of the game where they are good and bad being quite clear at this point. With a fully returned squad, there are many reasons to be very, very excited about the Deacs. Kyle Holcomb will be expected to carry on producing as he did in the NCAA tournament and throughout his Wake career, as will Omar Hernandez who really broke out from elite prospect to star during the spring season. Garrison Tubbs and new captain Nico Benalcazar will also be expected to bring this Wake defense up a level and eliminate the struggles they had last year. Cole McNally will need to continue playing at a high level this season to help a Wake defense that has had some problems giving up goals to lighten the load.