Maryland midfielder Eli Crognale trotted over to the corner flag, drenched in sweat. The Terps were applying pressure on a struggling Cal State Fullerton defense, enjoying a sustained period in the opposition’s final third.
With a swing of his right boot, Crognale fizzed a cross to the near post. Winger Justin Harris made a darting run, flicking his captain’s delivery goalwards. The header took a deflection, going out for another corner — which Crognale obediently jogged to take.
His next one was a perfect floated delivery to the back post. Center back Johannes Bergmann rose to knock the ball back into the mixer. It eventually fell to Malcolm Johnston, who was hacked down. The referee wasted no time pointing to the spot, and Crognale stepped up to bury the penalty.
The 31 seconds between the three events serves as a perfect microcosm into Crognale’s impact for the Terps. In an era where midfielders are constantly specialized, Maryland’s captain is a true all-rounder, and he showed exactly how vital he is on Saturday night.
“I thought Eli was fantastic today,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “His best overall performance of the year from beginning to end.”
Cirovski refers to Crognale as part of a “double six” — a midfield tandem typically deployed with a more defensive attitude. However, Crognale’s natural attacking instincts make him more of a No. 8, a classic box-to-box midfielder.
He molds the work of two positions into one and for parts of his Maryland career has shown mastery of both, and Saturday night’s 2-0 win over CSUF was one of those occasions.
Bothered by various injuries, Crognale battled through 90 minutes and dominated the midfield. He passed the ball precisely, looked comfortable when taking on opponents, and contributed directly to both of Maryland’s goals. While each of his 90 minutes were dynamic, Crognale’s impact is best summed up in the 194 seconds between Maryland’s two goals.
From the point that Crognale opened the scoring — a driven penalty kick in the 21st minute — to his pinpoint delivery for Maryland’s second, he subtly dominated the game, contributing in all facets of the game.
With new faces throughout Maryland’s lineup, there was always going to be some growing pains for the group. The Terps desired connectivity — from the timing of runs to the exact weight of a pass — needed time to blossom. All 11 players on the pitch are crucial in a possession-based system. Yet Crognale, as the center midfielder, is the jewel in Cirovski’s crown.
After missing a few games with various injuries — and then slowly working his way back to full fitness — Crognale showed exactly how much Maryland missed his ability to pick a pass. His ball movement was exquisite right from the off, finding minuscule spaces in which to feed passes behind the defense.
And vitally Crognale’s decision making was excellent. As soon as Maryland scored its first, Crognale applied the pressure with a long ball. Beating two CSUF players to a 50/50, he noticed that passing lanes behind and sideways were cut off, so he played a side footed pass down the line to Justin Gielen.
Next, he drove a corner to the far post onto Bergmann’s head, with the ideal amount of dip for the big German. While he couldn’t convert, it once again showed his ability to deliver from a set piece.
And finally, on his fourth time of trying, Crognale picked a pass that resulted in a goal — as Johnston added Maryland’s second just over three minutes after Crognale’s opener. This time, a free kick did the trick, with the ball starting at the far post and curling towards the middle of the box — a center back’s worst nightmare.
But perhaps his most impressive pass came seconds after Maryland doubled its advantage; a deft touch and driven ball to switch the play — without the need to look beforehand.
For a center midfielder, not only the quality but also timing of ball movement is absolutely paramount. And Crognale displayed that exact ability with aplomb on Saturday.
“What I like to offensively is just put the ball in the space where our guys can attack,” Crognale said. “And see those passes that the defense doesn’t see.”
While his position naturally dictates the movement of the ball, No. 8’s are typically faced with tight spaces. Such is the case for Crognale. Identified as Maryland’s star man, opposing teams send multiple players to cut off passes or disposes the ball before he has the chance to settle down.
And on occasion, it worked. Surrounded by three players, Crognale occasionally got boxed in and was forced a certain way. But crucially he never turned towards his own net, soaking up pressure away from his goal. It’s the kind of instinct that makes him so vital — the mastery of basic soccer principles that keeps the team calm.
But when left one-on-one, Crognale showed his quality. While not an overtly quick player, his bag of tricks and turns makes him a difficult matchup and unpredictable dribbler. He showed as such on multiple occasions.
“He was very composed for us on the ball as well,” Cirovski said. “Full credit to him.”
Off ball work
Crognale shows off his ability as a No. 10 with his passing range and dribbling instincts. But there’s a reason Cirovksi so often describes him as part of a “double-six.” That’s because his off-ball work — in order to defend as well as get open— is ideally tailored to Maryland’s system.
Classic soccer theory is that triangles are the ideal shapes to form when possessing the ball. The three-pointed series gives whoever has the ball two options to pass at all times. While it’s a simple concept, it’s frighteningly elusive at all levels of play. For Crognale, it’s simply instinct.
Crognale’s movement parallel to Nick Richardson gives Justin Harris two easy options. He can either pass back to Richardson, who can then switch to Crognale, or he can play the direct diagonal his captain. Either way, the fact that Crognale instinctively shifts into the triangular shape gives his teammate a minimum of two passing options.
He’s also shown a good understanding of Maryland’s press. USF played with one defensive midfielder — who was often left with few passing options. Crognale directed the midfield to pick the right time to press and force turnovers in ideal places.
Crognale’s complete performance can be summarized in a mere 194 seconds, but his impact was felt for all 90 minutes. After spending the first part of the season hampered by multiple injuries, Saturday’s performance served as a perfect return for the captain. It will be crucial that Crognale stays fit, firing and composed as the Terps look to make another run.
“We had a rough start to the season,” Crognale said. “But we’re here for another national championship.”