The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2-2) return to Spry today and with a big matchup on the docket, with the #5 Pittsburgh Panthers (4-2) coming to town. It’s been a mixed bag for both teams this season, with the Deacs sitting at .500 after a 3-0 beating in Louisville, and the Panthers coming in at 4-2 after winning their last two, a 1-0 win in University Park versus Penn State and a 4-0 romp against #4 UNC last weekend, propelling them to 4-2 after a loss to start last week in Akron against the #19 Zips. These two teams, thought of as the class of the ACC in the preseason rankings, are trending in very different directions. This presents another opportunity for the Deacs to get their season back on track, or to continue their rough form.
The all time series between Wake and Pitt is not pretty for the Panthers, who have of yet to defeat the Deacs in their four meetings, all wins for Wake and all having occurred since 2013. The matchup also pits the two most successful coaches in the history of Wake’s program against one another, with Pitt head coach Jay Vidovich having previously been head coach of the Deacs from 1994-2014 before heading to Pitt, overseeing the Deacs’ sole national championship, and Bobby Muuss, a former assistant under Vidovich, who has led the Deacs to 2 College Cup appearances and 2 ACC titles in his 7 years at the helm. The Deacs were picked as the second best team in the Atlantic Division of the ACC, but the Panthers were picked as the class of the Coastal, as well as the favorites for the overall ACC title this season after their College Cup appearance last season. Under Vidovich, Pitt have gone from the laughingstock of the conference to a national title favorite since 2015, with Vidovich having amassed a 53-56-9 record with the Panthers and now having put together back to back double digit win seasons, going 9-1 in conference last season after failing to win a conference game in his first two years. Pitt are now a formidable program, and that 4-0 mark Wake holds no relevance to tonight’s fixture.
Tactically, the Panthers line up in a 4-3-3 with a holder at the base of the midfield. Defensively, their line of confrontation is not very high up the field, and they are not a dogged pressing team like Louisville, but their counterpress is incredible, as they seem to find ways to be in the right spots to win the ball right back after losing it, or are able to get right back into their defensive shape if they can’t win it back. They’re a team that doesn’t mind playing out of the back, and likes to stretch opposing teams with constant switches to their fullbacks. They like to play quickly in transition, and have a very quick front line that connects well with the midfield, playing quick 1-2 passes and then making runs in behind. They are very crisp passers, composed on the ball, and, as a whole, a very professional team. They are a big team as well, always presenting a set piece threat and playing the game on their terms with their physicality. Both teams will be vying for possession in this game to control the proceedings, and Wake will need to take care of the ball better than they have throughout this season, not making the sloppy giveaways and other mistakes we’ve seen so far, as a team like this can turn giveaways into chances very quickly. Wake will, as always, be looking to limit transition moments, which a team like Pitt thrives on, although they are not the only wrinkle in their attacking gameplan. With Pitt settling into more of a mid block when the counterpress doesn’t get them the ball, Wake will need to find ways to break them down in the attacking third, something they have struggled with this season, especially in their most recent game. It will be a huge test to see if the Deacs can still hang with the top teams in the country after the start they’ve had this season, and they’ll need to make a huge step up in the quality of their performance to get a result out of this game.
Ones to Watch
#21 Filip Mirkovic (DM): Mirkovic is the pressure valve for the Pitt midfield. If you haven’t said his name, the chances are good that he is playing well. For a sophomore, he is one of the most composed players I have watched this season, calmly distributing the ball and cycling possession for this team, always making the right play or playing the right ball. He is also physically dominant in the middle of the field, and a very sound tackler, springing a fair few counters off of plays where he is able to win the ball back or poke it free to someone else. If he is able to establish a rhythm for this team in this game, Wake will have a lot of trouble getting on the ball and controlling the tempo of the game.
#8 Valentin Noel (CF): While statistically he ranks far behind his two partners up top, with only 6 points while teammates Rodrigo Almeida and Veljko Petkovic have 10 and 12 points respectively, he is the main connector between the midfield and the attack for the panthers. Noel drops back into the midfield to gather the ball frequently, acting as the primary creator for this team. He plays well with his back to goal, and is also a pacey threat running behind the defense. The Wake defense will need to be very mindful of where he, and his teammates, are on the field, as he tends to be able to drag defenders out of position to help create big chances for his team.
#24 Jake Swallen (CM): Swallen has shown flashes of brilliance, especially last spring, but he needs to step up here. He had a good start of the second half against Louisville, and was able to create a lot of chances out of a deeper position last year. He progresses the ball well, but in this game he’ll be expected to do more than that. He will be physically challenged by the Panthers, and will need to be able to cycle possession, hold onto it himself, and dictate the tempo of the game. He has the talent to do so, but he needs to show it tonight.
#14 Jahlane Forbes (LB): Forbes has struggled early this season, especially in the ACC opener, and he’s going to have to have a good game tonight. Last season, I thought he was maybe the Deacs’ best player, and I still see how talented of a player he is, but he’ll be tested tonight with all of the big switches that will be flying across the field from the Panthers. He’ll need to contribute not only offensively, but be able to win balls and defend one on one against some of the best players in the nation. Both fullbacks will have this asked of them, but Forbes’ attacking ability makes him a point of significant focus tonight.
Kickoff is set for 8:00 tonight, with this game being the second leg of a doubleheader at Spry, with the women’s team matching up against UVA.