The Wake Forest Demon Deacons men’s soccer team (3-0) took care of business on the road for the first time this season, dispatching of the UAB Blazers (2-1) at PNC Field in Birmingham, Alabama. The win gives Wake three to start the season, a feat they’ve now managed in five of the last six seasons, and, although this UAB team has low expectations this season, it was a good win for Wake. The Deacs were certainly the better of the two sides throughout most of the game, but the Deacs couldn’t quite put their chances away, and the Blazers were not going away quietly, giving Wake some scares against the run of play. In the end, though, the Deacs put in the kind of patient, resolute performance that we have seen in years past, finding the goals they needed and coming up with three points.
In the first half, the Deacs were able to control the flow of the game and keep their foot on the ball throughout, albeit with some of the same sloppiness they’d been working through in the first couple of games. It wasn’t an onslaught on the UAB goal, but the Deacs did find themselves a few chances, most of which fell to center forward Roald Mitchell. Mitchell had the biggest chance of the half when he found himself all alone one on one with the goalkeeper in the sixth minute, but he lifted the ball high and wide of the goal. They were suffocating UAB as well, as the Blazers didn’t create any meaningful chances in the half, but they got out on the break a couple of times and looked dangerous on their set plays. The Deacs did put in a solid shift in the first 45 minutes, especially the backline and midfield, winning the ball constantly from the Blazer attackers, but with Wake’s inability to convert their chances, the two sides went into the half all square.
The second half followed essentially the same trend as the first, but with the Deacs tidying up some of their sloppiness on the ball and keeping both hands firmly wrapped around the game. The chances weren’t quite coming at the same clip, however, but Wake continued to probe the UAB defense, looking to find the goal that would almost certainly be a backbreaker for the Blazers. Eventually, they would find that backbreaker, as all their probing led to a goal in the 68th minute. The play started with some miscommunication down the left flank, with Vlad Walent looking to send it down the line to Leo Guarino, who was looking to make a run back inside for an eventual cross. Walent would get on the end of his own ball, however, and would square it back inside to the returning Baba Niang, who would find himself some space in a pocket just outside of the area on the wing. He then squared it back inside to the feet of Guarino, who dribbled inside, skipped past a challenge from center back Eric Besse, chopped it back onto his left foot, and side footed it back across goal on the ground and into the side netting to give the Deacs the lead. It was a big moment for Guarino, with this tally being his first of the year, but an even bigger one for the returning Baba Niang, who finally received his reward after another journey on the long road to recovery.
Niang wasn’t done yet, either. In the 75th minute, Leo Guarino would receive the ball in a little pocket of space outside the half circle, then send it in behind for Niang. The ball was going to roll into the waiting arms of Jack Hudson, but a clumsy challenge from Guillermo Rodriguez on Niang would give Wake their first penalty kick of the season. It was a controversial one, with the UAB players vehemently arguing that Rodriguez’s challenge was too soft to warrant a penalty, which it may have been. The call had already been made, however, and Niang, who forced the contact and craftily won the spot kick would be the one to step up and take it. He would make no mistake, rolling it to the keeper’s left as he saw Hudson leaning to his right. It was a return out of fiction for Niang, who wound up with a goal and an assist to give Wake what certainly looked like it would be a victory. The Deacs would see out the result after the second goal, not allowing a shot in the last 12 minutes to secure their second shutout in three games and their first road win of the season.
It was a complete performance for Wake, which made it so a few solid performances went unnoticed. Garrison Tubbs had a very good game, with the new captain continuing to be a calming presence in possession and a commanding one against the ball. His first half performance was very good, as he and the rest of the backline stifled the Blazers. Vlad Walent continued to excite in his freshman campaign, marauding down that left flank throughout this game. Leo Guarino looked sharp playing at the 9, picking up a goal as reward for his performance. But the clear man of the match in this game was Baba Niang. Niang has struggled to stay on the field for Wake since he’s arrived on campus, but when he is able to get out there and get the ball at his feet, he can make something special happen. From the moment he was introduced in this game, it looked like he was going to be the spark to get Wake a result here, and he was exactly that. Overall, it was a strong team performance, and one that gave Wake another important victory to start the season.
The Deacs return to action tonight against the Winthrop Eagles at Spry before their first game of ACC play on Saturday, when they host NC State. The Eagles have had a tough start to their season, starting 0-2 after a pair of heavy losses to Georgia State and Mercer, both of which were NCAA Tournament teams last season. The Eagles have surrendered ten goals in their two games so far, scoring only three of their own. If their form continues like this, it looks to be another bad year for Winthrop, who have accumulated a 25-62-4 record since their 2015 Big South title win. 2015 was longtime coach Rich Posipanko’s final season at the helm, after which assistant Daniel Ridenhour took over the team and has had a rough time in the big seat. Last season was their best under Ridenhour, as the Eagles posted an 8-10 mark and a .500 mark in conference, which was certainly an improvement from their horrendous 0-8-1 mark the season prior. The Eagles are picked to finish fifth in the Big South, but with the tough non-conference schedule they’ve set out for themselves, there is no telling how the team will deal with conference play after what will likely be a series of heavy defeats.
For NC State, their goal is the same as ever: to be competitive in the ACC and get into the NCAA Tournament. Head coach George Kiefer has built plenty of tournament teams in his time as a head coach, making the NCAA Tournament in ten of his fifteen years leading USF, then taking the helm in Raleigh ahead of the 2017 season and leading the Pack to the tournament in each of his first three years at the program after an eight year drought. The last two years, however, have been failures for State, with the Wolfpack missing the tournament both years and accumulating a paltry 2-12-6 conference mark. This year, though, they have an experienced squad bolstered by transfers and a strong freshman class. They’re off to a 2-0-1 start after a pair of home wins over Loyola Maryland and Wofford, as well as a road point against reigning SoCon champions Mercer. State has also given Wake some issues in recent years, earning a draw in Raleigh last year against the Deacs and earning a road point against Wake in the spring half of the 2021 season after losing in Raleigh in the fall of that season. State may also have the benefit of more rest heading into the game on Saturday, as their Monday night game against Radford was postponed due to inclement weather. With both teams looking for a true test of their quality, it should be an interesting contest.
Kickoff for Wake’s game against Winthrop is set for 7:00 tonight, and their ACC opener against NC State is slated to kick off at the same time on Saturday night.