The Wake Forest Demon Deacons men’s soccer team (9-1, 3-1 ACC) suffered their first defeat of the season this past weekend, dropping a 3-2 result at home against the No. 4 (now No. 2) Duke Blue Devils. It was a statement victory for the Blue Devils, who were reeling after a shock draw to Yale, but it is a game that the Deacs would love to have back. They don’t have time to languish in their defeat, as they get right back to work early this week, hosting the Jacksonville Dolphins (3-4-2, 0-2-1 ASUN) in a non-conference matchup tonight at Spry. Their big test, though, looms large on Friday, as the Deacs will pack their bags and make their way up to Upstate New York for another heavyweight battle with No. 7 Syracuse (8-1-1, 3-1 ACC). The Deacs are no longer No. 1, dropping down to No. 4 in the most recent poll, but with a huge game coming up on Friday, the Deacs have the opportunity to climb back up the rankings.
Going into the game against the Blue Devils, the hype was palpable in Winston-Salem. The Deacs came in as the unanimous number one team in the country, and would have the backing of a packed house at Spry against a top five opponent. Wake looked the better of the two teams early on in the first half, and created a slew of very good chances that they just could not convert. It seemed as if Wake would be able to play this game on their terms, with Duke settling into more of a low block and allowing the Deacs to have the ball. As the half wore on, however, the Blue Devils found their way into the game, and although they didn’t create a lot of chances, they did put Wake under a lot of pressure in their own half. They also created all kinds of havoc on corner kicks, which the Deacs just could not get rid of. When the whistle was blown, though, the score was still 0-0 but with Duke carrying some positive momentum into the second half.
In the second half, Duke retained a lot of the momentum they had picked up at the end of the first half, continuing to give Wake trouble. They would finally cash in on one of their many set piece opportunities in the 57th minute, when Nick Pariano lined up a free kick from 40 yards out. On the service, Roald Mitchell would get tied up with Felix Barajas, and Ryan Fessler was caught ball watching, leaving Shakur Mohammed with a free header in the center of the box. He would flick it over Trace Alphin to give the Blue Devils the lead. It was a goal that felt like it was coming for the Duke, but it wasn’t a lead that lasted long. In the 58th minute, Garrison Tubbs would switch the ball to the left flank, where Baba Niang was one-on-one with Amir Daley. Niang dribbled his way into the box and forced a very clumsy challenge from Daley, giving the Deacs a penalty kick to tie the game. Niang would be the man to step up, and, once he saw Eliott Hamill diving early to his left, he slid the ball into the back of the net to make it one apiece in front of a delirious hill.
Even this equilibrium wasn’t to last, though, as Duke would once again take the lead two minutes later. A long ball out of the back from the Blue Devils would be controlled by Garrison Tubbs, who looked to play it back to Alphin. Tubbs’ ball was a touch slow though, and Alphin tried to flick it back outside to him rather than clearing it, gifting Duke a goal when his ball was deflected by Jai Bean into the back of the net. It was a calamitous play for the Deacs, and one that gave them a steep hill to climb in the last 30 minutes. After a Julian Kennedy equalizer was ruled out for offside, that hill turned into a mountain. In the 77th minute, Miguel Ramirez curled in a corner that Axel Gudbjornsson would earn Duke’s third goal with a glancing header that bounced into the back of the net. Wake looked up to the challenge, though, and mustered a late surge that had the Blue Devils scrambling in their own half. They’d be rewarded in the 80th minute, when an Omar Hernandez corner found its way into the net with the help of Duke’s Luke Thomas, who inadvertently nodded the ball back into his own goal. This goal kicked the Deacs into a new gear as they chased a third goal late, but their late slew of opportunities wouldn’t be converted, and the Blue Devils would steal a win in Winston-Salem for the first time since 2006. Despite the scoreline, the game was a resolute defensive performance from Duke, and a key part of that performance was my man of the match, Axel Gudbjornsson, who was excellent defensively and scored a critical goal in this game.
Where do the Deacs go now? In the literal sense, they stay in Winston-Salem for the time being, as tonight they host the Jacksonville Dolphins of the ASUN. The Dolphins are in the midst of a tough run, as they’ve won only one of their previous six games, going into a 1-4-1 rut after a 2-0-1 start to their season. Head coach Mauricio Ruiz is looking for a way to stop the bleeding and guide his team to the NCAA Tournament for the second time under his watch and fourth time overall. Ruiz has struggled mightily to keep his program competitive, however, amassing a 39-78-7 record at Jacksonville and a 15-27-3 record in the ASUN, with his only winning season coming in the 2020-21 season when he guided the Dolphins to a spring ASUN title and the NCAA Tournament. This is certainly a game that the Deacs will be expected to win and to win big, especially with the slide that the Dolphins are on right now. But the Deacs can’t afford to overlook this game because of the pivotal matchup ahead of them on Friday.
After Wake’s matchup tonight against Jacksonville, they’ll have a long trip up to Syracuse, where they’ll face the No. 7 ranked Orange. ‘Cuse is off to one of the best starts in program history, sitting at 8-1-1 with victories over reigning national champions Clemson as well as over 2021 College Cup participant Notre Dame. The Orange have been an excellent defensive unit this year, having only allowed three goals this season and earning shutouts in seven of their eight wins. It looks as if this season will end the Orange’s two year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, with ‘Cuse looking poised to host a couple of games. This is a welcome turn for head coach Ian McIntyre, who has been at the helm of the program for six of their seven NCAA Tournament appearances after his 2010 appointment. McIntyre has accumulated a 115-86-32 record at Syracuse, including a 96-58-30 record and a conference championship since the Orange made the move to the ACC from the Big East in 2013. The Deacs have largely dominated in the short history of this series, holding a 5-2-2 record against the Orange all time, including a 2-0 win in last year’s regular season finale at Spry. However, the Deacs have never won at Syracuse, posting an 0-2-1 mark against ‘Cuse on the road. The Deacs have also not won a game against a ranked Syracuse team, posting an 0-1-1 record in such matchups. Against another very organized and physical opponent, the Deacs face a tough challenge on Friday in a game that they’ll need to win if they hope to host games in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
Kickoff for tonight’s game against Jacksonville is set for 7:00. Kickoff in Syracuse on Friday is set for 7:00 as well.