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Alberto Camargo | NCAA.com | September 24, 2022

Wake Forest vs. Clemson men's soccer, previewed by digging deep into the game film

Clemson defeats Washington, secures 2021 Men's College Cup

Clemson and Wake Forest meet in a massive ACC clash between the defending College Cup champions and the current No. 1 team in DI men’s soccer this Saturday at Historic Riggs Field in Clemson, South Carolina. The game is at 7 p.m ET and streams on ESPN/ACCNX. To follow along with live updates, click or tap here.

A clash like this deserves special attention because two high-level soccer teams sharing the pitch is as much a game of strategy and nuance as it is physical. Before taking a look at each team's style of play this season, let's see how this matchup has played out historically and in recent seasons.

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Series history, recent results, returning players

This will be the 53rd matchup between the programs, a series in which the Deacons lead with a 24-20-8 all-time record. These teams are pretty even in the last five meetings, with two wins each and one scoreless tie the last time Clemson played host. Interestingly, at least one team has been ranked in each of the last 11 meetings — and Saturday will be the seventh time as many years that both teams rank in the top 10. The most recent battle happened last October, a 2-1 Clemson win that the Tigers dominated in terms of shots (19-5) and corner kicks (12-1), but shots on goal were nearly even (5-4). 

There are several players on both sides who played in that game and should feature on Saturday like Clemson’s dynamic attacking trio of Ousmane Sylla, Mohamed Seye and Isaiah Reid, as well as captain Alvaro Gomez. 

Unlike Clemson, the Deacons return many players from their backline including the spine of goalkeeper Trace Alphin and the center-back partnership of Prince Amponsah and Garrison Tubbs. Other notable upperclassmen with plenty of experience against Clemson are midfielders Takuma Suzuki, Omar Hernandez and Jake Swallen, who have played the Tigers at least four times since 2019.  

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Clemson and Wake Forest film breakdown

I sat down to watch each team’s two previous ACC matches and their most recent non-conference clash to get an idea of how they set up and how they play. What I gathered is that both teams set up in a 4-3-3 base formation and generally like to control possession, which is to be expected. The differences show in the roles of certain players within each system. Here’s what I noticed:

Wake Forest in possession

The dynamism in Wake Forest’s system comes from the midfield. Suzuki sits at the base, always in position to receive the ball from his center-backs and assist in build-up, while Hosei Kijima and Cooper Flax have more freedom to roam. 

Flax is the main creator on the field. Here he was pushed into the forward line, playing as a second striker next to Roald Mitchell. As right winger Colin Thomas wins the ball, Flax drops a couple of steps and plays a first-time lofted pass over the defense, resulting in a clear chance for Mitchell and a shot on goal.

Both Amponsah and Tubbs are trusted with the ball, regularly making runs into midfield or looking for a long pass forward if a teammate is in space. Tubbs' run forward here results directly in a scoring chance that the Deacs eventually cash in.

The space for Wake to attack is opened up by pinning defenses deep by pushing both Flax and Kijima basically into the forward line. The spaces opened up by the five attackers are ideal for passes like this.

Clemson in possession

The midfield is less dynamic compared to Wake Forest but is more industrious as a whole. Gomez shuttles up and down the pitch on the right side of midfield, filling in at right back when needed and also playing balls forward in the attacking third. Elton Chifamba is the holding midfielder, fulfilling a similar role as Suzuki does for Wake Forest. 

Mohamed Seye is the focal point of Clemson’s attack, using his physical prowess to hold up play and allow other attackers time to get involved. The creativity comes largely from Sylla, a tricky attacker who pops up in any space he feels can be exploited. Nominally he starts on the left wing, but he routinely cuts inside to create havoc for opposing defenses. 

Another creative outlet for Clemson is overlapping runs from outside backs, as seen on this play that led to Reid’s goal against Syracuse.

Potential downfalls

Wake Forest employs an intense high press, led by the tireless Kijima, who can play a full 90 minutes and still find the energy to sprint in the final minutes. At times, the press can be another form of attacking for the Deacons, creating numerical advantages against a defense scrambling to recover after losing possession, though it can be just as dangerous for Wake Forest when a composed team plays through the press.

The Tigers should get Sylla back for the showdown with Wake Forest. He missed the previous two matches (including the loss to Syracuse). Without him, Clemson struggled to create as many chances against the Orange, a team much closer in quality to the Deacons than Presbyterian. Either way, Saturday's heavyweight bout will pit two teams hoping to have a say in the national championship picture come December.

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