David Kovacic’s brace carries men’s soccer past Rutgers

Courtesy of Maryland athletics

Prior to Wednesday night, midfielder David Kovacic hadn’t scored for Maryland — and hadn’t really come close either. Yet against Rutgers at Ludwig Field, the freshman earned two chances on goal, burying them both. 

In the 85th minute, Kovacic peeled away from his defender at the back post. Defender Chris Rindov saw his run and diverted a header across goal. Although Kovacic didn’t make clean contact, the ball sailed into the back of the net. 

And his celebration was one to remember. After sliding on his knees, he ran over to Brayan Padilla, celebrating with his injured teammate.

“I scored, and I just wanted to give my goal to him,” Kovacic said, “to make him feel happy.”

It was a fitting end to an excellent performance from the Slovenian, whose two moments of magic illuminated what was an otherwise dreary Maryland performance. Still, the Terps showed enough second-half strength to emerge with a 3-1 win. 

“The night ended on a happy note,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We needed to get three points. I think we deserved it.”

The match was tainted before it even began, after star attacking midfielder Brayan Padilla suffered a serious knee injury in warmups. And the Terps looked flat for the first few minutes. But they rallied in the second half and produced a prolific performance for their first Big Ten win.

Just as it had done in Madison on Friday night, Maryland enjoyed the majority of chances in the first half. Striker Eric Matzelevich received regular service from attacking midfielder Luke Brown but couldn’t find the back of the net. 

A well-driven strike from Matzelevich went high in the 5th minute. Goalie Oren Asher diverted a shot from inside the box in the 11th. And then twice in the 20th minute, Matzelevich had two more unsuccessful chances on goal. 

“I think we’re starting to become a little bit more connected,” Cirovski said. “We’re getting sharper in possession, a little more dangerous in the attack.” 

Still, Maryland showed promise for most of the first half. Cirovski’s 3-5-2 formation kept Rutgers at bay, with its main point of attack Pablo Avila kept off the ball. The Spaniard did provide the most convincing look of the first half, cutting inside and firing at goal, but goalie Niklas Neumann diverted his shot. 

Striker Justin Gielen had the Terps’ best chance in the 36th minute. Maryland strung together a series of passes, floating down the left side of the pitch. A flick from Justin Harris into the path of Nick Richardson led to a squared ball to Gielen in front of goal. Although he seemed certain to score, Gielen couldn’t wrap his foot around the ball, and could only watch as it sailed wide. 

With seven minutes remaining in the period, Maryland switched to a more orthodox 4-3-3, going deep into its bench to provide options for the formation. The new faces continued the fluid play yet couldn’t provide a crucial goal before halftime. 

“This is a team when one player goes down —when things get difficult— we all rise up and help each other,” Cirovski said. 

The Terps continued to apply pressure in the second half, coming out of the break with a high press and intensity. Matzelevich again was the main beneficiary, while Gielen shifted to a right wing role, pressuring the Rutgers defense and drawing the opposing backline away from Matzelevich. 

Matzelevich had two further chances at the start of the second half before he could find the net. In the 57th minute, winger Justin Harris manufactured a shot from outside the box. His effort was deflected but fell comfortably into his path. And on the 7th time of asking, he found the back of the net with a driven shot into the bottom corner, opening up a 1-0 lead.

“On a night like tonight when it’s just chance after chance” Matzelevich said, “…it’s really important to get a goal.” 

But as soon as the Terps took their one-goal advantage, Rutgers responded. Against the run of play, Nick Cruz fired a long diagonal ball to Avila. The sophomore raced onto the ball and lifted a shot comfortably over Neumann for a well-worked equalizer in the 64th minute.

Egged on by the home crowd, Maryland pushed for a winner. It established total control for the last 26 minutes, and finally saw results. Kovacic’s first goal was off a layoff from winger Fola Adetola. The senior corralled the ball on the edge of the box and diverted it into the path of Kovacic, who smashed it into the back of the net. 

“I knew I had to come in and step up,” Adetola said. “I was just waiting on the sideline for my moment, and I was happy to get in and make an impact.”

Ten minutes later, Kovacic sealed Maryland’s third goal with a calm volley at the back post, capping off a deserved victory for the Terps. 

“Any goal is amazing. To get three is special,” Matzelevich said. “To get them at Ludwig is even better.”

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