By Brendan Hartlove
On the frigid shore of Lake Michigan, Eli Crognale calmly placed the ball on the penalty spot. He lifted his head to see the net of the goal wavering in the blustering winds. With nerves as cool as the Evanston air, Crognale rifled his shot past a diving goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
It was a singular moment that did not encapsulate the essence of the match, but would ultimately decide the outcome, as Maryland topped Northwestern 1-0 to advance in the Big Ten Tournament.
After the opening whistle, the ball hardly left Maryland’s half of the field. The early stages of the game saw Northwestern on the front foot, and the host team relied on a direct approach. Several dangerous crosses tested the Terps’ backline, including five corners in the first half — but the Wildcats couldn’t capitalize. Despite conceding seven goals in the last two games, Maryland’s defense held strong and survived a nervy opening 15 minutes.
Maryland’s attacking shape throughout the first half was incredibly narrow. With Northwestern’s defense strong in wide areas and the frustrating conditions, the game elicited a cagey style of play from both teams.
“We were pinned in a little bit,” Nick Richardson said after the game, “and it was hard to get in behind, but I thought we coped very well with it and we played a very strong defensive half.”
Eric Matzelevich offered the most convincing first-half attempt for the Terps. In the 32nd minute, he drove into the box and, amid a swarm of Wildcat defenders, fired a shot. His effort was thwarted, and the game continued scoreless.
It remained as such for the rest of the first half, with neither side looking likely to break the deadlock after an intriguing first 15 minutes. The game lacked a vital spark of energy typical of a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.
In the second half, the winds of the game changed. Not only were the conditions now in Maryland’s favor, but the Terps dominated the course of play.
In the 48th minute, a failed Northwestern clearance led to the ball bouncing toward Eli Crognale at the top of the box. The senior’s heavy touch fell kindly into the path of David Kovacic, who sent a venomous strike off the crossbar – mere inches from opening the scoring.
Unlike in the first half, the Terps utilized the wide areas of the field in the second half, and to great effect. Maryland’s fullbacks pushed forward, delivering service into the box and connecting with the midfielders higher up the pitch.
While Maryland’s defense neutralized Northwestern’s attack for the majority of the second half, the Wildcats had a glorious chance to open the scoring in the 57th minute. On the left wing, Vicente Castro sent a teasing cross toward Ty Seager at the back post whose downward header seemed destined to nestle under the crossbar. Unwilling to be beaten, Maryland goalkeeper Niklas Neumann leaped through the air and parried the shot behind in stunning fashion.
The Terps continued to control play following the close call at the other end, with Maryland’s press pinning Northwestern into its own half of the field.
In the 71st minute, Maryland would break the deadlock, fittingly against the run of play. A Northwestern defender clattered into Nick Richardson inside the penalty box, leading to Crognale’s game-deciding penalty kick. It was the senior captain’s second goal from the spot this season, and marked his sixth straight match with a goal or assist.
“He’s providing that leadership that you need at this time of the year,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “Eli plays with confidence and swagger, and I thought he had another really outstanding performance tonight.”
Even after taking the advantage, Maryland did not sit back, comfortable with its lead. The Terps continued to battle, and was able to keep Northwestern from any threatening attacks.
“We knew that everything needed to stay in front of us and not let them get in behind our backline,” Eli Crognale said, “and then we’ll just win the second balls in the midfield, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The Terps’ excellent game management saw out the rest of the match, earning them a 1-0 victory despite unfavorable conditions.
Maryland will make the trip back to College Park for its Big Ten Tournament semifinal game, with a rematch against top-seeded Indiana taking place on Friday. The Terps defeated their conference rivals 3-0 at Ludwig Field on October 18th.
“No matter who won that last game,” Eli Crognale said, “it’s a clean slate and it’s postseason time and anything can happen.”
The live radio broadcast of the Maryland semifinal game can be heard on WMUC Sports Radio.