The No. 1 Wake Forest Demon Deacons men’s soccer team (7-0, 2-0 ACC) kept their hot start going with another pair of wins last week, defeating Fairleigh Dickinson (2-4-1) in a thriller at Spry on Tuesday, then following that up with a victory in Blacksburg against the Virginia Tech Hokies (0-5-1, 0-2 ACC) for a second ACC win. These were a pair of results that Wake really had to fight for and that they showed real resilience in picking up, but this week presents an entirely new challenge for the Deacs. Wake will lead off the week with an out of conference game tonight at Spry, as the Deacs will host George Mason (2-3) in a game they can’t afford to overlook. However, a trip to defending national champions Clemson (7-1, 1-1 ACC) coming up on Saturday looms large on the horizon beyond this game. For a Wake team that is now ranked No. 1 in today’s new United Soccer Coaches Poll, this week gives them a chance to prove that they are one of if not the best team in the nation. But before reviewing this week’s challenges, let’s take a look at last week’s successes.
The Deacs opened up last week with a Tuesday night matchup against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights at Spry in what looked like it would be a matchup Wake would dominate. It became clear very early that the Deacs would have some trouble in this game, though, as the Knights came out looking to play a very physical game. They were organized defensively as well, making it tough to break through their lines throughout this one. There were a couple of early chances for Wake, though, with the Deacs finding some space out wide to exploit and sending balls in for Roald Mitchell. The Deacs opened the scoring relatively early on, as in the 17th minute, as an inch perfect ball up the flank from Vlad Walent found Ryan Fessler, who sent the ball into the box for Roald Mitchell, who would acrobatically volley it into the back of the net. The scissor kick was Mitchell’s fifth goal of the season, and wound up as the number 2 play on the SportsCenter Top 10 the next day. It felt as if that goal would be the first of a few, as it would coax Fairleigh Dickinson out of their deep block and into a more open game, one that Wake could easily control and get a goal or two more. However, the Knights remained resolute and began to find some space out on the break. After letting a half chance go by the wayside only a few minutes earlier, Fairleigh Dickinson tied the game back up in the 23rd minute. Jordan Alonge knocked Colin Thomas off the ball in the Fairleigh Dickinson half to win possession for the Knights, then popped the ball up and lined it between the two Wake Forest center backs to find Joshua Ferreira in behind. Left all by himself, Ferreira sprinted forward, took a touch around Trace Alphin, and slotted it into the back of the net. With this goal, the game shifted. It was no longer going to be Wake dominating possession and looking for a way through FDU’s deep block. The Knights were now looking for a win. When the halftime whistle blew after 20-odd more minutes of physical, stalemate soccer, it looked as if Wake would be locked in a dogfight for the next 45 minutes.
When the second half started, the Knights were a lot more proactive and energetic. They brought their physicality up the field, looking to press the Wake backline to some effect, making the Deacs look a bit more disjointed in the first ten or so minutes. However, the Deacs did settle in, and were once again the team that was seeing more of the ball and getting more going forward, and while FDU was trying to be more proactive, they were not creating any chances of note. Wake continued to probe until the 64th minute, when they finally found their goal. Garrison Tubbs sent the ball through the midfield to Colin Thomas, who cut it inside onto his left foot and skipped around two defenders before sending a cutting ball through to Roald Mitchell. Mitchell would charge into the box and lash it back across goal, off the post, and in for his sixth goal of the season, and sixth in his last three games. With Wake mostly controlling the game at this point, and now back ahead, it felt as if they would be able to kill the game off. However, lightning struck again for FDU, as in the 68th minute Hugo Bacharach would head home a Kevin Leonhard corner at the back post to tie the game once again. That goal seemed like it would be the backbreaker for the Deacs, leaving them resigned to a draw, at best, at home against a mid-major program as the No. 2 team in the country. However, faced with real adversity for the first time this season, the Deacs found a way to respond. In the 75th minute, Oscar Sears had the ball at his feet near the top of the box, and he would slide it through the backline to a streaking Jahlane Forbes down the left flank. Forbes would cut it back to the top of the box, where a waiting Cooper Flax would side foot it back across goal and into the side netting to give the Deacs the lead once again and notch his first goal at the college level. Wake had found new life once again in this game, taking all life from the Knights in the process. FDU couldn’t muster a late surge to challenge the Deacs, and Wake would take the win in dramatic fashion. There were a few solid performances in this one, particularly from Cooper Flax, Ryan Fessler, and Jahlane Forbes, all of whom did very well in this game, but Roald Mitchell is my man of the match here. He had his trouble early against an FDU backline that was very physical, especially against him, but he settled in and notched a pair of beautiful goals in big moments to give Wake the win.
Wake had to move on very quickly after this rollercoaster of a game, as they’d have to travel a couple of hours up the road to face the Virginia Tech Hokies at Thompson Field. This matchup was certainly trickier one than the records would suggest, as this is a VT team that has a taste for winning and a taste for beating top ten opponents. More importantly, they were a team in desperate need of a win. In front of a packed house in Blacksburg, they were full of energy from the first whistle. They didn’t threaten all that much, however, and Wake looked the better of the two teams early on. A few chances, including a Roald Mitchell mishit on a Colin Thomas cutback that was cleared off the line, came for the Deacs, but they couldn’t quite find a goal. It was a bit sloppy from Wake in this game, as Virginia Tech did very well to match the Deacs’ intensity, but the Hokies didn’t look very dangerous going forward, with the Wake backline having a particularly strong day. The two sides would go into the half deadlocked, and it looked as if Wake would need to grind out another result here.
Coming out of the half, the Deacs looked a little bit sharper going forward, and they capitalized on this with a goal in the 52nd minute. The play started with VT keeper Ben Martino attempting to punch a cross away from his goal, but Vlad Walent would trap it with his back to the net just inside the area. He would chop the ball back to Cooper Flax at the top of the box, who would poke it over to an onrushing Colin Thomas, who deposited the ball into the back of the net at the near post on his favored left foot for his first goal of the season. After the goal, however, Wake began to sit back a bit and allow VT to put pressure on them, which led to a lot of stressful moments in front of their own goal, including a big save from Trace Alphin to deny Nick Blacklock. Wake would be resigned to defending in their own half for most of the remainder of the game, although they were able to get out on the break a few times after winning the ball back. An unconscious performance from the defense would carry the Deacs through, as the final whistle would sound with the score still at 1-0. This wasn’t Wake’s best performance of the season, but it was one of their grittier ones, and a few players are deserving of recognition for their contributions to it. Colin Thomas was very good in this game, putting in what has probably been his best performance of the year in this game, even when ignoring the goal. The backline in general is deserving of credit as a unit, with each player in it putting in a resolute shift. The two center backs were both immense this game, with Garrison Tubbs turning in an excellent performance alongside Prince Amponsah, who, for me, was the man of the match in this game. Amponsah just seemed to be everywhere, winning the ball nearly every time he was tasked with doing so, and also doing very well in possession. It was a banner day for the defense and especially for Amponsah, and the Deacs moved to 2-0 in the conference as a result.
Wake returns to action tonight against a George Mason team that is hoping that they’ve turned the corner. After an 0-3 start to the year, the Colonials have won their last two games, against Radford and St. Bonaventure. It’s an improvement for the Colonials, however, who have won a paltry 6 games over the last three years, going winless in conference over the last two years as well. It’s a program that was in need of a hard reset after legendary former UNC and Creighton head coach Elmar Bolowich’s tenure, during which he posted a 2-19-4 record. They’re doing just that, as they hired Rich Costanzo to lead the program this season. Costanzo was an assistant under Jay Vidovich at Pitt for two years, during which time the Panthers made the NCAA Tournament twice and went to the College Cup once. He’s already notched as many wins this year as the team did under Bolowich, so he’ll be hoping for a victory here to send the Colonials back on track to make the tournament for the first time since 2013. These two teams played last year when Bolowich was the coach in a game that Wake ultimately won on a Jake Swallen goal with 17 minutes left in Fairfax, VA. The Deacs will be hoping for a more comfortable game back in Winston-Salem.
A bigger test looms large on Saturday, as the Deacs will make the trip down to South Carolina to take on No. 10 Clemson. There is very little to be said about Mike Noonan and his Clemson squad over the last few years. He’s amassed a 140-72-35 record in his time at Clemson, and he put together his best season as a head coach last season, going 16-5-2 en route to the program’s third national championship and its first since 1987. Clemson held the No. 1 ranking in the nation every week of the season before this one, but after a loss at home to now No. 3 Syracuse, they’ve fallen all the way to No. 10. The all time series between this team is a tight one, and one that Wake leads 24-20-8. Clemson does hold the advantage at home, posting an 11-8-3 record against Wake at Historic Riggs Field. Recent series history has been just as tight, with the two sides deadlocked at 2-2-1 in their last five meetings. Clemson got the better of Wake last year at Spry, as a Jake Swallen late first half penalty was canceled out by goals from Tim Ströbeck and Luis Felipe Fernandez Salvador in a dominant Clemson second 45. With Clemson now having even more of a point to prove, they’ll be an exceedingly tough matchup for Wake, who haven’t beaten Clemson at Riggs Field since 2018.
Kickoff for the George Mason game is set for 7:00 PM tonight, and the Saturday game in Clemson is set for 7:00 as well.