After women’s soccer’s two win opening week last week, the No. 15 Wake Forest Demon Deacons men’s soccer team repeated the feat, earning victories over the UCF Knights (0-1) and the Air Force Falcons (0-2) to open their season 2-0. With a squad that is still missing some important players, they were a good pair of wins, and the Deacs really had to fight through some adversity in both games. In the end they did enough, and they’ll go into their first road game with an unsullied record.
The Deacs opened their season in a doubleheader with the women’s team, taking on UCF in the nightcap. Wake was still without Baba Niang and Omar Hernandez, making the attacking midfield spot a big question mark for this game and the first few games of the season. This turned out to be moot, though, as they picked up a victory by a 1-0 scoreline to punctuate a two win day for Wake’s soccer programs. It didn’t come easy, though, as the two teams put together a very back and forth first half. Wake’s press was causing all sorts of problems for the Knights, and the Deacs’ attack looked liable to score every time they came forward. On the other hand, UCF were able to get out in transition frequently, and they gave the Wake backline a few scares with some balls flashed across goal. Ultimately, neither team was able to score in the first half, and the Deacs would go into the break all square at home.
Wake flipped a switch in the second half, coming out and looking absolutely dominant against a UCF team that has been picked to finish second in the AAC. Wake moved the ball with purpose and suffocated any potential attack in the Knights’ end before they could get going the other way, controlling the tempo and flow of the game. It didn’t take them long to take advantage of their dominance, as in the 48th minute Oscar Sears floated a ball in behind for Hosei Kijima, who had made an inch perfect run in behind the defense. Kijima went up and headed the ball into the back of the net, winning an aerial battle against the onrushing goalkeeper Juanvi Muñoz. It was a huge goal for Wake, who would continue their dominance afterwards, pressing doggedly and pushing for a second goal to put the game to bed. There was a lot of last ditch defending by the Knights, punctuated by a point blank save from Juanvi Muñoz on Roald Mitchell, who looked absolutely sure to deposit a rebound from only a few yards out. In the end, though, the Deacs didn’t need a second goal, as they saw out the game with no incident, opening the season with a shutout at home, which is very encouraging to see after some of the defensive struggles they had in the spring.
There were a lot of solid performances in this game that propelled Wake to a victory. Wake’s left side pairing of Vlad Walent and Jahlane Forbes looked absolutely incredible both going forward and defensively. Oscar Sears had a very good cameo, registering an assist in the number 10 spot that was up for grabs going into this game. Garrison Tubbs and Prince Amponsah had impressive performances as well in the backline. But the man of the match in this one was Hosei Kijima. Kijima was absolutely everywhere all game, moving the ball well, winning it back in the midfield, and registering the game’s only goal. These performances also answered some important questions that were surrounding the Deacs this year. First and foremost, the midfield was the strength of the team in this game, even without both Omar Hernandez and Jake Swallen. Hosei Kijima looks to have locked up a spot in the middle as a starter, and Takuma Suzuki also had a solid game next to him, as did freshman Aethan Yohannes in a brief apperance. Wake also looks to have a strong winger rotation, with Colin Thomas and Vlad Walent starting and giving great performances, and substitutes Sidney Paris, David Wrona, and Chase Oliver all looking solid coming in relief. Overall, in spite of a back and forth first half, Wake looked as strong as they have in a long time.
The Deacs returned to action on Sunday night, hosting the Air Force Falcons. The Falcons had opened their season with a 2-1 loss in Chapel Hill to the #24 Tar Heels earlier in the week, and they finished their week with another 2-1 loss in North Carolina, falling to Wake by that score at Spry. The game started with Wake firmly in the driver’s seat, looking liable to score almost every time they came forward. Air Force had very little to offer going the other way in the first half, seeing their attacks swallowed up in the midfield over and over again. Vlad Walent opened the scoring for Wake in the 17th minute with his first collegiate goal, a missile at the near post from the near side of the area. Goalkeeper John Byszewski was left with no chance, flailing at the ball as it soared toward the top corner. Wake sustained their dominance for the remainder of the half, capitalizing on this dominance with another bomb in the 43rd minute. It was Oscar Sears this time who scored the goal, with the Swede registering his first tally of the season on a ball that knuckled over Byszewski from 25 yards out. When the buzzer sounded for half time, it looked as if the Deacs would continue to coast through this game.
The tide of the game turned quickly in the second half, though. In the 49th minute, Aethan Yohannes was stripped at the top of the box by Thaddeus Dewing, who would slide the ball through Trace Alphin’s legs to cut Wake’s lead to one. It was a frustrating error for Wake, who looked more likely to score another two than to give one up at that point. From that moment on, the Deacs had to sweat out the second half. A lot of the struggles that they had over the spring cropped back up after the goal. Air Force looked like they had hit a new gear, with a new belief that they could steal something from this game. They pressed the Wake backline incessantly, and the Deacs continued to give the ball away in their own half. They could hardly get out of their own end, but the defense remained resolute after the turnovers, recovering and repelling the Falcons’ attacks. Ultimately, that early second half goal would be the only one they conceded, as they did see out the result in spite of their struggles.
It was a very Jekyll and Hyde performance from Wake overall. In the first half, they looked like the same old Deacs of years past that would take the life out of games early, seeing opponents off without incident. In the second, they looked like a team that lacked confidence, a team that had been shell shocked by a goal well against the run of play. However, there were still some good performances to pick out. It was a strong game from Garrison Tubbs at center back, with the captain hardly putting a foot wrong during the whole game. Vlad Walent put in another shift for Wake; the freshman just seems to be all over the field, both going forward and defensively. The man of the match in this game, and likely the player of the week, was Oscar Sears. In the span of a few days, Sears seems to have taken over the attacking midfield spot and turned it from an open slot into a position of strength. Sears impressed on Thursday, but he put together an even stronger performance on Sunday, looking confident and sharp throughout the game. His passing and decision making were both excellent and were critical in Wake’s strong first half showing. He also, of course, netted the game’s winning goal, which certainly also helps his case. While it wasn’t all that pretty for Wake in this one, they came out with the result that they needed, and Oscar Sears’ performance was a big part of that.
Wake will return to action on Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama, where they’ll take on the UAB Blazers (2-0). The Blazers have been a program in freefall for the past few years, with only 8 combined wins in their three previous seasons. They’ve started this year strong, though, earning a pair of shutout victories at home this past weekend in the UAB Soccer for a Cure Classic against the College of Charleston and Division I rookies Queens University. Going into this season, it seems that not much was expected of the Blazers, as they were picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference. They also lost two of their three exhibition matches in the fall, losing at home to NAIA opponents William Carey and getting hammered 7-0 by Lipscomb in Nashville. The two teams’ most recent meeting was in 2020-21 at Spry, when native Alabaman David Wrona netted a brace in a 3-0 victory for the Deacs. Wake will be hoping for a similar result in Alabama to move to 3-0 on the season this year.