Tonight, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons men’s soccer team begins another campaign at 8:00, hosting the UCF Knights in the second leg of a doubleheader with the women’s soccer team. It’s felt like an eternity since the Deacs’ last competitive game, a loss in South Bend to Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, but Wake returns a lot of familiar faces and will have the same goal in mind that they’ve had for the last fifteen years: winning another national championship. The Deacs open the year in the preseason rankings, coming in at #15, behind ACC foes Duke (#13), Pitt (#7), Notre Dame (#4), and reigning national champions Clemson (#1) but ahead of North Carolina (#24) in the United Soccer Coaches Poll. With another year of experience for what was still a very young team last season, expectations are sky high in Winston-Salem.
Last year, the Deacs finished with a 13-7-1 record, and one that included some frustrating losses along the way. The Deacs did find their way eventually, though, winning 9 of their last 12 after a 4-4-1 start, including a pair of NCAA Tournament games. The Deacs certainly were aspiring for more than they got last season, especially after their incredible spring campaign in 2021 during which they didn’t lose a game until the NCAA Tournament. In the end, though, the Deacs’ young core got another year of experience, including some ever-so-valuable postseason experience, going into 2022. The Deacs then had a whirlwind spring, traveling to England for a slew of matches, attracting international attention following dominant victories over the u-23 teams of English Premier League clubs Brentford and Leicester.
They returned to the States after this trip riding high, but had mixed results upon their return, including a penalty kick victory over Pitt, but also a 3-0 loss at home to Duke and a 2-1 home defeat to Canadian semi-professional club Vaughan SC. Unfortunately, the Deacs received a huge injury blow during the spring as well, as Jake Swallen suffered an injury that will keep him out of action for the entirety of this season. Swallen has not only been an excellent player in the middle of the field for the Deacs, registering the second most points on the team last season with 16, but he is also a team leader and was set to wear the captain’s armband this season. This past week he did post a video on Instagram alongside the Wake Forest Men’s Soccer team account declaring that he would be back next fall for his final season in Winston-Salem. It is a huge blow for the team this year though, and we can only wish him well in his recovery.
The Deacs also saw a few departures in the offseason, chief of which was that of center forward Kyle Holcomb, who graduated joined the professional ranks after leading Wake in points (28) and goals (12) last season. Left back Holland Rula also left the program, initially being drafted in the MLS SuperDraft but ultimately deciding to return to college soccer at High Point, joining his brother there. There was also a surprise loss in the spring, as rising sophomore midfielder Tareq Shihab departed the program to return to his native England and suit up for Whitehawk FC in the 7th division of English soccer. Wake also made a surprise addition, however, dipping into the transfer portal for the first time since picking up Alistair Johnston from St. Johns ahead of the 2018 season. Sydney Paris, a 2021 All-Patriot League First-Team midfielder at Navy, made the switch from Annapolis to Winston-Salem in the spring. He was a big and necessary addition to the team after the departure of Shihab and especially after the injury to Jake Swallen. However, plenty of questions still surround the squad heading into its first game.
First and foremost, where are the goals coming from? The Deacs lost Kyle Holcomb who was a bonafide goalscorer over his last three years, and now are without Jake Swallen, their primary penalty taker and joint-second top scorer from the 2021 season. So who fills in those gaps? First and foremost, the Deacs will be looking for a return to form (and to health) from Omar Hernandez, who had a bit of a statistical down year after a breakout campaign in 2020-21. But beyond that, they’re hoping that their two sophomore center forwards have some goals between them. Roald Mitchell and Julian Kennedy combined for 8 goals and 3 assists in 912 minutes last season. Mitchell looks primed to be the starter up top this year after getting hot at the end of the season and continuing his form through much of the spring. Mitchell also netted Wake’s lone goal in their two fall exhibitions, scoring in the first against Coastal Carolina.
Wake will also be looking for some help from their wide players, who they have historically been very reliant on to score and create goals. Chase Oliver had a breakout year in 2021, netting four goals and assisting on four more in his sophomore season. He’ll certainly be expected to take another step up this season, as will fellow junior Colin Thomas, who scored one and assisted two last season in 515 minutes. The Deacs have also loaded up on reinforcements out wide in their incoming recruiting class, the 2nd ranked class in the nation, with Vlad Walent being of special interest, as he started Wake’s final exhibition against #6 West Virginia. Wake will also welcome Nico Rabiu who looks set to play as a wide player after playing attacking midfield and forward at the academy and USL levels with the New York Red Bulls. Both will compete with returning players Mwinson Denkabe, Nicolas Mancilla, and David Wrona for those spots, as well as the versatile Sidney Paris who can play both in the middle and outside.
A much bigger question surrounding the Deacs this year is their midfield. With the departure of Tareq Shihab and the injury to Jake Swallen, Wake has lost a starter and a major rotation piece in their midfield. And with Omar Hernandez healthy but still working back from an injury and a few additions to the midfield, it feels as if all three spots may be up in the air. The ever reliable Hosei Kijima seems to be in line to take one of them, and the junior did log a lot of minutes in the Deacs’ final exhibition in the middle. As for the rest of the midfield group, Bobby Muuss did a fair bit of rotation, using Aethan Yohannes, Sidney Paris, Cooper Flax, Takuma Suzuki, Leo Guarino, and Ryan Fessler in the West Virginia game. It will also be interesting to see how Baba Niang figures into the midfield picture, with the sophomore coming into this season off of an impactful six games down the stretch in 2021 after an injury took him out for most of the season. Oscar Sears will also be vying for a spot and hoping to kick start his Wake Forest career after two seasons of minimal playing time. Overall, it looks like the Deacs have plenty of players that are capable options in their midfield, but it does still seem to be an open competition for those spots.
For the first time in quite some time, it looks like the defense might be the most stable part of the team for Wake. Garrison Tubbs, who was named captain this season, looks set to move back inside to play center back alongside Prince Amponsah for another season, with freshman Sam Jones sitting behind them as a backup option. Back at right back is Cristian Escribano, who missed last season through injury. He’ll split time with sophomore Bo Cummins it seems, with Escribano being a more balanced, possession oriented fullback in contrast to Cummins, who is more direct and attack minded. On the other side, Jahlane Forbes looks set to start at left back, although he may also be the team’s best winger and could take time at that spot. If he does move up, though, freshman Alec Kenison, who had a very impressive spring, will start there. And behind this back line will be Trace Alphin, who took the starting job last season after an injury to Cole McNally and ran with it. He looks set for another big season after his breakout freshman year between the pipes, but hopefully with a defense as talented as the one Wake brings into this year, he won’t be too busy.
After looking at the strengths of the roster, as well as the questions surrounding it, what can be expected from this team? Wake’s non-conference schedule looks very winnable throughout, with UCF and Air Force being the only two teams on it to win more than half of their games. The Deacs also managed to avoid all three preseason ranked teams from the Coastal Division of the ACC (Notre Dame, Pitt, and UNC) in their conference schedule, and they only play one road game against a preseason ranked opponent, traveling to #1 Clemson on September 24th. As far as the question marks around the team, I think we’ll find answers to them very quickly. Roald Mitchell looks set for a breakout year after a very strong finish to last season, which certainly would seem to solve Wake’s goalscoring problems. In the middle, while I’m not quite sure who will start, with this incredibly deep group that the Deacs have, they should be able to find at least three players who can give them strong performance on a game to game basis. This coupled with a system that looks much more press-intensive this season than it has been in years past, Wake could still very easily return to being a machine that just suffocates teams, either by freezing them out of the game by holding the ball or by preventing them from getting forward much at all with their press. While some things are still up in the air about this team, they do look primed for a lot of wins this season.
Finally, I’d like to conclude this article with a preseason award prediction for this team:
Player of the Year: Roald Mitchell
Breakout Player of the Year: Vlad Walent
Defender of the Year: Garrison Tubbs
Golden Boot: Roald Mitchell
Assist Leader: Chase Oliver
Minutes Leader (Outfield Player): Garrison Tubbs