Editor’s Note: Chris Amaral was unable to log in, so this has been posted on his behalf.
The 2021 Wake Forest Demon Deacons women’s soccer team wasn’t one that garnered much national attention at the beginning of the year. They hardly garnered any attention in their own conference, being picked to finish 9th in the ACC in the preseason coaches’ poll. They proved to be the surprise of the ACC, however, starting the year on an 8 game shutout streak, clinching their first ACC Tournament bid since 2017 and their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2018, ending the season with a 16-6 record. They won six of their ten ACC contests, their highest win total in conference since a six win season in 2013. This doesn’t include their landmark 2-1 victory in Durham during the ACC Tournament when the Deacs toppled the then #2 ranked Duke Blue Devils to advance to the semifinals in Cary. But this is a new year for the Deacs, and after a long spring and summer of preparation for the upcoming season, a question arises for the Deacs. Where do they go from here?
First and foremost, the Deacs are returning a lot of players. They return three starting midfielders, with super senior captain and defensive anchor Giovanna DeMarco and sophomore phenoms Nikayla Small (who, in my opinion, is a top five player in the conference) and Malaika Meena coming back for another year. Coach Tony Da Luz will also see three of his four starting defenders from last season return to the team, with junior left back Sophie Faircloth and sophomore center backs Zara Chavoshi and Kristin Johnson remaining in the fold in Winston. Although right back Ryanne Brown, who was one of the better fullbacks in the nation last season, will not be returning this year, sophomore Tyla Ochoa played nearly 900 minutes during her freshman year in that spot and should be primed to take the baton and run with it. Second Team All-American goalkeeper Kaitlyn Parks will also be back between the pipes at Spry after a breakout campaign in which she only allowed 17 goals in 22 games. She and the rest of this spine were paramount to Wake’s success last year, making the Deacs a very, very tough team to score on. Earlier on in the season, Wake would sit deeper in a 4-3-3 and would let other teams try to work through their mid block, which was very successful in shutting down opposing attacks. This led to the long shutout streak to start the season and the success Wake had against weaker ACC competition and non-conference foes. Later on in the season, though, Coach Da Luz switched to more of a 4-4-2 diamond that put a lot of pressure on the opposing back line and midfield, which worked to great effect, suffocating teams in their own end, leaving them unable to work the ball into any dangerous areas. Returning talented players that have played in this system is absolutely critical to maintaining the level of performance that we saw last year from this team, and they are doing just that.
On top of all of these returning players, the Deacs are also bolstered by the 20th best recruiting class in the nation, and the 4th best in the ACC. It includes four players who have been rated as four-star recruits in the IMG Academy/TopDrawerSoccer.com recruit rankings, including forward Chidubem Dike (No. 98 recruit), winger/midfielder Brooke Potter (No. 76 recruit), defender Allie Schmidt (No. 179 recruit), and defender/forward Courtney Evans (No. 112 recruit). The class also includes Carly Wilson, who was named a high school All-American by United Soccer Coaches after her performances this past year at Lambert High School in Atlanta. Tony Da Luz is certainly a coach that is ready and willing to give freshmen minutes if he believes that they can give him high level performances. Last season, four of the eleven players on the team that logged more than 1000 minutes were freshmen. It is also worth noting that last year’s incredibly impactful freshman class, which included returning starters like Small, Chavoshi, Meena, and Johnson, was only rated as the 37th best class in the nation. While that ranking was dragged down by the fact that Wake brought in a few international players, as TopDrawerSoccer.com only ranks domestic prospects, it is still worth noting that national women’s soccer media rates this year’s incoming freshmen very highly, much more so than they did last year’s class.
While there are many positives to point out about this team going into the season, there is certainly a glaring question mark surrounding the team. Last year, Wake boasted an attack that consisted of Shayla Smart, Sofia Rossi, Jenna Menta, and Hulda Arnarsdottir. Between the four of them, they scored 31 of the Deacs’ 43 goals last season. All four of these players have now graduated and moved on from the program. Replacing one player’s goal output is hard enough, but when you lose four players and all but one of your multi-goal scorers (Malaika Meena registered 2 goals last season), the task seems herculean. During their spring game against NC State, this problem showed itself. The attack looked static and disconnected, and although they did find a goal in that game through Emily Morris, it was a struggle for the Deacs to create chances.
Now, spring games are played so the team and the coaching staff can iron out these types of problems, so I don’t find the team’s performance in this case to be particularly troubling. However, it seems to be an open question as to who is starting in those forward roles. The NC State game was also interesting because the Deacs reverted back to a 3-4-3 that they hadn’t deployed at all during the previous season, but that they did use frequently in previous seasons, opening up more questions about what players will be filling which spots. In any event, it appears that the Deacs are looking to fill three forward spots, and it is unclear who will be starting in these spots. Carrie McIntire is the returning player with the most minutes logged as a forward, with only 368 minutes logged and one goal scored. In the NC State game, she played on the right side of the front three alongside Kristi Vierra in the middle and Emily Morris on the left. Liv Stowell also played out wide during that game in the front three, but there was a good amount of rotation. Emily Morris certainly had the most impressive performance of the bunch, as she looked dangerous going down that left flank, showed a lot of energy in the press, and, of course, scored the Deacs’ lone goal in the game. It still feels as if every spot is up in the air, though, with Vierra, Stowell, and McIntire all having their moments over the course of those 90 minutes against State, but not locking up their spots by any means. It is also worth noting that Malaika Meena played a few games on the left flank for Wake last season prior to the change to a 4-4-2, and played relatively well, but her best performances were in the middle of the field.
So how will the Deacs go about replacing these four players? Based on Tony Da Luz’s comments on his incoming class, he seems to be very high on Chidubem Dike, who is a natural center forward. With no incumbent striker, she may be the favorite to take over that spot, but she’ll have to compete with junior Kristi Vierra, who showed some promise at that spot in the spring, and incoming freshmen Aisha Polk and Hannah Johnson. As for the outside spots, they may be even more up in the air than center forward. Emily Morris, Carrie McIntire, and Liv Stowell are the primary returnees who could start in those positions, but there is also the possibility that other players that are not primarily wingers, like Malaika Meena, Nikayla Small, and Sophie Faircloth, vy for those spots as well. On top of that, the Deacs are also adding four players who Tony Da Luz stated are outside attacking players, including the top ranked recruit of Wake’s signing class, Brooke Potter, as well as Alex Wood, Laine DeNatale, and the previously mentioned Aisha Polk. There is also the wildcard option of incoming freshman Courtney Evans, another four-star recruit, who Coach Da Luz said has experience as a defender, but is also a quality attacking player. Although the front line is a big question mark that looms large over the season for Wake, the Deacs certainly have a wealth of options.
So where does that leave us? Last season, the Deacs ripped off 8 dominant shutout wins to start the season and won 10 of their first 11, with the only loss coming to a top 5 UVA team. However, the Deacs have laid out a much tougher non-conference schedule for themselves than they did last season. In 2021, the Deacs breezed through a schedule comprised mostly of mid-major teams that would go on to struggle throughout the season, with the exceptions of Power 5 Maryland, who went winless in the Big Ten, VCU, who were the only team Wake played in that stretch who won more than half of their games, and High Point, who were the only team in Wake’s non-conference schedule to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Deacs have scheduled a bevy of strong programs, including perennial (and reigning) Horizon League champions UW-Milwaukee, who are coming off of a 19-2 season that included a tournament win over #14 Xavier, preseason Horizon League favorites Oakland, power conference foes Georgia and Auburn, who both reached double digit victories last year, with the latter qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, Big South champions High Point, and Maryland, Loyola Maryland, and Rhode Island, who all struggled last season. The Deacs are also likely to be without Zara Chavoshi and Nikayla Small for a couple of these games, as both players are currently with the Canadian U-20 National Team for the U-20 World Cup. They will certainly not be available for the opener against Milwaukee, as the Canadian team wrapped up their tournament against Nigeria yesterday.
Aside from the challenges of a tougher schedule, the team also lost a fair amount of depth from last season’s team. In addition to the losses of starters like Sofia Rossi and Shayla Smart, the Deacs also lost valuable depth pieces like Lauren Tangney and Ashley Frank to graduation, as well as Faith Adams to the transfer portal (High Point). While these weren’t players that were key contributors every game, having players like them who can give you quality minutes is a huge advantage, especially when you are playing two games almost every week. While it is certainly possible, and maybe even likely, that other players can step into those roles and offer the same level of quality, it is still a question to be answered.
Ultimately, I don’t see the Deacs shooting out to a white hot start as they did last year, but that is no reason to press the panic button. Missing key contributors like Small and Chavoshi for tough games like the opener against Milwaukee will make things challenging on Wake, as will the major losses in the attack that they’ve suffered. It will take some time for what will likely be a freshman-heavy attack to acclimate to college soccer and to one another on the field. You certainly don’t want to be taking bad momentum into conference play in the best conference in the country, though, and I do still expect the Deacs to enter ACC play with a solid record, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t battle some adversity early on this season, particularly going forward. While there are a few questions surrounding the team and concerns about how they will deal with a difficult schedule, I’m still optimistic. The Deacs are returning almost the full spine of their team, a team that only allowed 17 goals, and one that kept many of the nation’s best teams in check. They’ll start their season Thursday at 7:00 PM at Spry against UW-Milwaukee.
And with all that being said, I’m going to conclude this article with my preseason award predictions for this team:
Player of the Year: Nikayla Small
Breakout Player of the Year: Chidubem Dike
Defender of the Year: Zara Chavoshi
Golden Boot: Chidubem Dike
Assist Leader: Nikayla Small
Minutes Leader (Outfield Player): Sophie Faircloth