Let the scoring begin. The red-hot North Carolina Tar Heels, winners of nine straight, will face their toughest test of the season when the explosive Demon Deacons of Wake Forest come to Cary to determine supremacy in the ACC.
You will be hard pressed to find a bigger regular season game this year. Both teams began this season with one goal and one goal only: Win the National Championship. Both teams reached the Final Four of the College Cup last winter, with UNC bowing out against Stanford in a heartbreaking semifinal, and Wake falling to the Cardinal in the title game. Those two losses to Stanford have defined both teams' offseason, their preseasons, and now their regular seasons. There is only one goal: Get back to the Final Four and finish the job.
And on their way to reaching that goal, they have scored an awful lot of goals. Wake Forest is averaging 2.82 goals per contest, good for second in the nation. Who's Number One? The Tar Heels. They average 3 goals flat.
Last week, we compared the Tar Heels to Manchester City (the sky blue uniforms, the explosive offense, the four brilliant offensive stars). Well, if Carolina is City, then Wake is Manchester United. They're not hurting for stars themselves. Carolina unleashes Winn, Wright, Lindley, and Pieters. Wake counters with Bakero, Servania, Argudo, and Twumasi. And as United is to City, they're right up the road.
The Deacs' senior midfielder Jon Bakero leads the nation with 11 assists. Freshman Brandon Servania has 8. Luis Argudo and Ema Twumasi both have 7 goals on the year. Eleven Demon Deacons have scored this season. They have allowed just 9 goals, better than the Tar Heels' 11. Carolina has one win over a Top 10 team (Virginia), the Demon Deacons have two (Louisville and Clemson).
An interesting caveat: The two best offenses in the country will likely be facing two freshman goalkeepers. Carolina's early season goalkeeper controversy has been discussed, but freshman Alec Smir has solidified his position as the clear cut No. 1 in the past weeks, tallying three consecutive shutouts and has made some truly game-winning saves of late. Wake, on the other hand, had started sophomore Andrew Cases Mundet for the first ten games of the season, but for the Clemson game last Friday, he was benched in favor of Charlotte native Andrew Pannenberg.
Carolina's defense had been a bit suspect early in the season, but the last three games have all ended in shutout victories for the Tar Heels. The victims (Winthrop, NC State, and James Madison) aren't exactly world beaters, but seeing a 0 in the enemy column has to do wonders for the Tar Heels' confidence. They'll need that confidence going into Friday.
Wake, on the other hand, has played in two absolute barn-burners in their last two matches. They defeated South Carolina 2-1 on a last-second goal by Twumasi and their victory over Clemson was a classic. The Deacons won 3-2 in double overtime over the 6th-ranked Tigers.
Don't underestimate the value of rest in this game either. The Tar Heels have a quick turnaround, coming off a 6-0 pounding of James Madison on Tuesday. Wake has not played this week, and will have had six days off to the Tar Heels' two. That could very well prove a factor in a high energy game between two teams that love to get up and down the field.
So who wins? Who knows. It's a pick 'em. Looking at these two sides and what they've done this year, I'd say that if they played ten times, neither team wins six. The homer in me says the Tar Heels take it, but the only thing I'm certain of is that it will be one for the ages. If you don't have plans Friday night, you should be tuning in. And if you do have plans, cancel them. These two teams were a penalty shootout away from playing for the National Championship last year. Friday night, they get their game.
The Pick: Heels 3-2
The game kicks off at 7:00 pm ET on WatchESPN and ACCN Extra