Wake Forest Men’s Soccer Head Coach Bobby Muuss has one of the most difficult jobs in collegiate sports. When he arrived to take over the Demon Deacons program in 2014, he walked straight into the fire that is ACC men’s soccer, widely considered to be the most competitive conference in the collegiate landscape. But Muuss knew what he was getting into, and the conference has only continued to strengthen.
“Last year, we had nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, and eight of them made the Sweet 16,” Muuss told USLPDL.com. “I was telling my staff today, I don't see why all 12 teams couldn't be in the tournament this year with the talent and the way all the teams are playing. Obviously, I don't know if that will happen, but we're pushing the envelope towards that happening.”
But Muuss hasn’t faltered in his leadership. Under his gaze, the Demon Deacons program has risen back to the top of the conference. In the years prior to his arrival, Wake Forest advanced no further than third in the conference, the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals and the third round of the NCAA Tournament, all while winning no more than 11 games.
Since Muuss took over in 2014, the team has increased their win total every year, from 10 to 17 to 19. After finishing fifth in 2014, the Demon Deacons finished first in 2015 and second in 2016, advancing further in the ACC Tournament each year, from the quarterfinals to the semifinals to being named champions last year. Furthermore, they’ve gotten deeper in the NCAA Tournament each year, from the first round to the quarterfinals to finishing second in 2016. Already, his tenure could be considered a success, but Muuss makes note that it hasn’t been easy, and the work that goes into such a rise is thorough.
“First of all, your talent pool is massively selective,” Muuss said. “You have guys one through 28, or 26 depending on your roster size, and we don't recruit guys with the expectation that they're not going to play. We want guys who can be put in any situation and have that level of play continue. But the biggest thing for us is having a very competitive training environment. We want to make training as competitive as the games, and obviously, you need the talent to do that and push the intensity. The ambition the players hold as well – if you want to play at the next level, you can't take days off, so they're going to have to be in tune every day and compete every day. That's something I think this group takes great pride in.”
Part of taking no days off is keeping players active year-round, something Muuss cites as crucial to their development. Muuss’ Wake Forest team plays host to a large number of PDL players, with 11 on the roster ranking sixth overall in terms of NCAA DI colleges, and he gives those players a large sum of time on the field, with 6,423 total minutes last season ranking fifth across DI.
The story is much the same across many college programs, with every program in the initial 2017 top-25 rankings fielding at least one PDL player from the 2017 season, including many PDL Top Prospects. Muuss believes a consistent relationship with the PDL is a beneficial one to many college programs, who are provided with places they can trust their players to work hard, and properly.
“I think the whole thing with PDL is a great outlet for these guys and continuing to play into the summer,” Muuss said. “I think it's all about relationships, sending them to PDL clubs where you feel the environment is right. You know they're not just going to play, they're going to be pushed to do things right on and off the field. There are a great deal of really positive environments in the summer with people you know, respect and trust. They're a part of the family. The same way that parents trust us with their kid for the four years that they're here, we're trusting our student-athletes to be in the right environment in the PDL system. It's a great environment for anybody with ambitions of playing at the next level.”
Muuss and Wake Forest aren’t the only program to take full advantage of a strong PDL relationship. A number of other ACC schools have rosters chock full of PDL talent, including UNC-Chapel Hill, who field nearly an entire roster’s worth with an astonishing 26 PDL players on board. Similarly to Wake Forest, North Carolina trusts those student-athletes with significant minutes, with 9,898 minutes in 2016 between them, leading DI in both categories.
Elsewhere, Duke also features a heavy load of PDL talent, with seven players on their roster accumulating 4,904 minutes in 2016. Most notably for the Blue Devils is New York Red Bulls U23 forward and No. 1 PDL Top Prospect Brian White.
So, what links the ACC and PDL so heavily? Muuss believes ambitions play a large role in the partnership.
“I don't think it's the ACC, I think it's the players themselves,” Muuss said. “They're motivated, they want to play in the conference where we pride ourselves on being the best soccer conference in the country. In order to do that, guys have to play year round, obviously with some breaks here and there. They're all competitive guys who want to chase the dream one day and have ambitions of playing at the next level and you want to continue to play. After the spring season, guys are still hungry and they want to continue to get time and compete, and I think that's why you see a lot of these ACC guys playing in the PDL.”
Muuus knows a thing or two about those players and their ambitions, fielding some of the premier talent PDL has to offer. The Demon Deacons count among their number two of the three Top PDL Prospects: No. 2 Jon Bakero, who played his PDL season with the Carolina Dynamo, and No. 3 Brad Dunwell, midfielder for the Michigan Bucks.
Muuss has gotten to work with Bakero and Dunwell for years now, and has built them heavily into his system at Wake Forest. The three have had a great deal of success together, and Muuss relies on each significantly to play their respective games at the highest level consistently.
“Both of those players have a lot to do with the rhythm and the flow of the team,” said Muuss. “You know when you look at our good performances, Jon [Bakero] and Brad [Dunwell] have been good, and in some of our lackluster performances, they might not have been. That's the way it's been with Brad the past few years with the way we play through the midfield. He's a key part of what we do and how we do it, and we expect a great deal of consistency from Brad. A lot of people talk about Jon’s scoring, but a part of his game that's very valuable to us is his ability to initiate our press and hold balls up and be able to connect the team. When he's doing that we're as good as anybody, and when he's not, we're not as good in the final third, and that was evident the other day when he started holding things up against Louisville and getting on the end of things, his positioning was good, and he started getting further up the field, and we were highly dangerous.”
But sometimes even the most talented teams can run into roadblocks and unexpected struggles in their quest for supremacy. The Demon Deacons hit one such roadblock early this year, finding themselves on the wrong side of an 2-1 upset to Georgia State in overtime. It was a big non-conference blow for Wake Forest, who was the No. 2 ranked team in DI at the time.
But it’s well-known in sports that overcoming adversity is the mark of any true contender, and the Demon Deacons showed up big in their next clash to bounce back quickly. Competing in their first ACC match of the season, Wake Forest took down a ranked opponent in Louisville, with the Bakero-Dunwell PDL connection coming up big, as the former scored a goal on the latter’s assist. Muuss knows bad results can happen, but he’s also been around enough to know you can’t let those results weigh on you.
“You hope that they don't have those performances like we did on Tuesday,” said Muuss. “The big thing for me is just that any team can beat anyone on any given day in college soccer. I don't think we underestimated Georgia State, I don't think the guys weren't ready to play, I actually think they played quite well. But we were a little loose defensively and a couple of mistakes caught us out. We also look at it as we generated 20 shots and just needed someone to get one past the goalkeeper, who made nine saves. It's a performance that makes it easy to humble the guys and say, 'hey, we need to get better'. But to be fair, I don't think it was one of our better performances against Louisville either. They had a guy sent off which definitely changed the game and the guys took full advantage of it and really put the pedal to the metal, played good football and got behind the defense a few times.”
Muuss’ level-headedness clearly translated to his team, as they brushed off the Georgia State result to earn the Louisville win. A big part of that comes down to attitude. One of the most vital characteristics that Muuss seeks in his players is a constant desire to win, a consistent hunger to perform. He knows there’s a bounty on your head when you’re among the top programs in the country, and he believes the Demon Deacons are ready for that challenge.
“For me, everyone who walks through the door here, and I think this is true across most of the country, the goal is to win,” said Muuss. “If we're going to feel sorry for ourselves after a loss, it'd be a long season. We want to be in the habit of winning and get back to that habit as quickly as possible. With our schedule, you have to be on every game. Every Tuesday a non-conference team is coming in and has a target on you. If you're Wake Forest, or Clemson, or Maryland, or whoever, if you're off on these Tuesday games, you can lose to anybody. Hopefully, we just learned our lessons on Tuesday, and we won't let it happen again.”