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Preview: UNC prepares to face Wake Forest on Friday

The UNC Tar Heels embrace after junior midfielder Cameron Fisher (17) scores the third goal of the game with an assist from midfielder/forward Ernest Bawa (20). The Tar Heels beat the Georgia Southern Eagles 3-0 at Dorrance Field on Sept. 3.

The North Carolina men’s soccer team (6-3-1, 2-2 ACC) will host Wake Forest (4-4-1, 1-2-1 ACC) at Dorrance Field on Friday night.

Perhaps the most startling insight revealed when analyzing the teams' common opponents this season is that Wake Forest defeated Pittsburgh 3-1, while UNC suffered its worst loss of the season to Pittsburgh, 4-0. The Demon Deacons have not won any of their last three games, and play William & Mary the Tuesday before their matchup with UNC.

But Friday night in particular is about payback. When the teams last met in May, UNC’s 2-1 upset denied Wake Forest a trip to the College Cup. 

After a 3-0-1 start to the season, the Tar Heels have struggled to maintain momentum, alternating between wins and losses in their past seven games. Coming off of a blowout win over N.C. State Sunday night, however, UNC is looking to seize the opportunity to find its rhythm. Friday’s conference game may be the spark needed to rediscover the magic that helped the team upset Stanford and Wake Forest last postseason.

Staying aggressive on offense

North Carolina leads the ACC in shots taken with 188, while Wake Forest is second to last with 118. Key players on offense include junior midfielder Cameron Fisher and fifth-year forward Santiago Herrera. Fisher is having a breakout season and leads the team in points (12) and goals (5). Meanwhile, Herrera has played an integral role in the Tar Heels’ aggressive offensive game, leading the team with 28 shot attempts, which also ranks him at seventh in the conference.

However, UNC certainly doesn’t want to be too aggressive, as evidenced by its game against VCU. North Carolina took 50 shots to VCU’s four, only to draw 1-1 in a frustrating, physical battle. Maintaining a high but steady pressure on offense will be crucial if North Carolina wants to efficiently capitalize on scoring opportunities.

Less can be more at times for the Tar Heels’ offense, but its assertiveness will be put to the test against a Wake Forest team itching for revenge.

Maintaining solid defense

UNC ranks third in the conference with one goal allowed per game, while Wake Forest ranks tenth in goals scored per game (1.11). The Tar Heels’ defense is led by graduate defenders Fillipo Zattarin and Joe Pickering, along with goalkeeper Alec Smir.

Key players to watch out for on Wake Forest’s offense are sophomore midfielder Chase Oliver and senior forward Kyle Holcomb. Oliver and Holcomb lead the team in points with eight apiece, combining for 31 of their team’s 118 shot attempts this season. Additionally, expect junior midfielder Omar Hernandez to keep up the pressure on offense, as he leads the Demon Deacons in shots with 23.

Scoring early and never looking back

All six wins for North Carolina have been shutouts, and two of the team's three losses have also been shutouts.

It seems that conference play elicits an “all-or-nothing” performance from the Tar Heels. The aforementioned shutout losses were to conference opponents Pittsburgh and Duke. In both games, UNC gave up an early lead and couldn’t muster a comeback. The Tar Heels will need to score early and maintain pressure to avoid letting another conference matchup slip away.

North Carolina’s 2-2 conference record ranks them second to last in the Coastal Division. If they want to bounce back as ACC title contenders, defeating Wake Forest would be a much-needed step in the right direction.

@dthsports |

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.