Despite a gritty performance, Maryland soccer couldn’t survive against Indiana

Joshua Penn should have scored. Maouloune Goumballe found him with a cut back, wide open on the edge of the six-yard box. Yet Penn’s rifled shot didn’t find the back of the net. Instead, Maryland full back Matt Di Rosa got his left foot to the ball, stabbing it off the line. Niklas Neumann recovered corralled the last-gasp clearance, and the Terps breathed again. 

It wasn’t the first time that Maryland had narrowly avoided a certain goal on Friday night. The Terps spent most of the night on the back foot, fighting for their lives. For long stretches, it looked as if Maryland might escape alive — and possible grab a goal of its own. 

However, the defense finally broke, with a 103rd-minute Jack Maher penalty sending the Terps out of the Big Ten tournament. It was an uncharacteristically withdrawn performance from the home side. Without their usual sharpness, the Terps were forced to rely on grit and vigour in the face of a relentless Indiana attack — a method that eventually crumbled. 

When the two teams met at Ludwig Field on October 18, Indiana endured its worst game of the season. It lacked quality in the final third, and was unable to deal with Maryland’s speedy attack. This time, the Hoosiers came to College Park a different team. They constantly pressured Maryland’s midfield, fired passes into the box and shutdown the Terps’ offensive outlets to piece together a win that was far more dominant than the scoreline suggests.  

Midfield under constant pressure 

While Maryland’s midfield lacks size, it contains three players who are more than comfortable playing around an opponent. For sequences this season, that has showed. The Terps have scored numerous flowing goals, starting in the middle of the pitch, finding a winger, and finishing with a shot inside the box. With such a consistent deadly formula, it’s surprising that no team had challenged that move by pressuring Maryland’s midfield early and often. 

On Friday night, Indiana did. From the opening whistle, Maryland faced constant pressure. The trio of Nick Richardson, David Kovacic, and Eli Crognale were all closed down as soon as they trapped the ball. 

Richardson, in particular, had a difficult night. The freshman usually has space to control and play a pass — but Indiana gave him no such option. Therefore, he had to play long, speculative balls with little chance of finding their target.

The Hoosiers also made sure that Richardson was contested to almost every ball. Although a  gritty, hard-nosed midfielder, Richardson lacks the physical height to challenge with bigger players. Indiana picked up on that, affording the freshman no chance to create for his teammates. 

Later in the game, Maryland started to seem rattled. Instead of controlling the ball, it played risky, first time passes towards dangerous areas. Had Indiana been more clinical on the night, a number of those unforced giveaways could have lead to goals.

Crongale was also regularly shut off at the No. 10 position. Scoring or assisting in the last six games, the senior has established himself as Maryland’s most effective attacking player. The new role leaves Crognale able to show off his dribbling skills to get out of tight spaces before playing instinctive passes in the final third. On Friday, he found himself tightly marked whenever he touched the ball, cutting off passing lanes and limiting Maryland attacks. 

Indiana also gave Crongale few opportunities to dribble, jumping on his first touch before he could build up momentum. Thus, his trademark ability to beat a man then play a clinical pass was stifled. 

“We couldn’t maintain possession with our midfielders and forward players,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. 

Dealing with crosses 

Indiana typically attacks with ferocious pace, switching the play and whipping in balls from the wings. Such a strategy gives the Hoosiers a lot of assisted goals. That play was mostly stifled in October. In November, it shined.

Despite Maryland’s more defensive set up — it played a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-3-3 — Indiana constantly found offensive overloads on the wings. Indeed, both Spencer Glass and Simon Waever pushed up and fired crosses into the box. 

“We knew that a lot of crosses would be coming in,” goalkeeper Niklas Neumann said. “That was like the last time we played them.” 

In the early goings, Maryland seemed very well prepared for the threat. The backline retreated well when Indiana had an extra man on the wings, portexting the Terps’ 18-yard box with aplomb. 

Johannes Bergmann was particularly effective in that sense on Friday. Indiana piled men towards the goal, all reaching for searching deliveries from the wings. But Bergmann was often on hand to snuff out the danger after marking his man effectively.

It wasn’t the only occasion in which a Maryland defender successfully guarded an Indiana forward. Brett St. Martin did so in the second half, blocking his opponent from reaching a dangerous ball into the box.

Maryland also benefited from poor finishing on Indiana’s part. Although the Terps did their part on pressuring wingers and defending the mouth of the goal, Indiana still generated some open looks. But the Hoosiers simply couldn’t find the back of the net — suggesting that it might be a night in which Maryland could snag a winner.

Sometimes the Hoosiers fluffed their shots when wide open.

 And on others they were foiled by Neumann.

The German was excellent all night for the Terps, posting a career-high 12 saves. While some were on weaker shots, either deflected or speculative, many were instinctive and incredibly difficult stops.

Without Neumann between the sticks, it could have been a far less flattering scoreline for the Terps. 

“That game could have been ugly if not for him,” forward Justin Gielen said. “[We are] very grateful to have him back there.”

Few options up front

Despite giving up 22 shots, Maryland’s defensive effort was consistently excellent. The sheer volume of Indiana attempts failed to reflect the performance the Terps posted in their own half. Indeed, the biggest shortcoming for Cirovski’s squad was its inability to string anything together on the offensive end. 

“Our issue tonight had nothing to do with defending,” Cirovski said. “It had all to do with possessing and attacking.” 

Spending so much of the game pushed back, it was absolutely imperative that Maryland be as clinical and connected as possible going forward. And they set up well to do so. Whenever Maryland won the ball back, Eric Matzelevich moved from his central position towards the wings, creating a passing option on the break. However, the execution on the pass was often lacking, with Indiana winning the ball back quickly. 

Maryland was also guilty at getting caught so deep in its own territory that it had no options but to pass the ball right back to Indiana. 

That perhaps reflected one of the biggest holes in the Terps’ personnel. While they have physical forwards such as Matzelevich and Gielen, no one on the roster is particularly adept at holding the ball up and waiting for the attack to develop. Thus, the Terps are effectively forced to be a possession-based, counter attacking team. And when those options simply aren’t available, they struggle.

Maryland did manage a few half-hearted attempts on goal over the course of the evening. Although matched up against the imposing Jack Maher, Matezelvich occasionally found a yard to drive towards the goal. But his shots were either astray or right at the goalie.

While the Terps grinded out an ugly 103 minutes on the defensive side of the pitch, their true shortcomings came in the final third. Lacking their usual quality, they were forced to resort to grit and determination to beat an Indiana team on top of its game. But eventually they were tactically outclassed, and now face the daunting task of short rest in the NCAA Tournament starting next Thursday. 

“We just didn’t look like we had our legs,” Cirovski said. “It seems silly but we… didn’t seem to have the freshness and the sharpness.”

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