Eric Matzelevich was caught between two celebrations. After the Maryland men’s soccer striker cracked a shot into the top corner, he wheeled away in celebration. First, he punched the air, then ran away from his jubilant teammates before gliding into a knee slide, completed with a salute. It was a fittingly dramatic celebration for a much-needed thunderous shot.
Furthermore, it was a fitting strike to decide a close contest. With Akron visiting in a national championship rematch, both teams pushed high up the pitch for the whole 90 minutes. But Matzelevich’s strike was the difference at the end of the night, as the Terps achieved the same scoreline that brought them the national championship 278 days ago: a 1-0 win.
“Tonight was a tremendous win for our team,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “It required a championship effort and I think tonight we got it.”
After showing brief moments of connectivity through its first three games, Maryland put together a complete 90 minutes against last year’s College Cup opponents. Matzelevich’s memorable strike may have been the difference, but it was a true team effort under Ludwig Field’s lights.
Maryland started the game with an intensity yet to be seen so far in 2019. A revamped lineup, with freshmen Justin Harris and Malcolm Johnston playing the wings, deployed a high press early — and it was effective. Akron faced suffocating pressure early on, settling for speculative diagonal passes rather than quick link up play.
“Harris looked like he was a senior out there,” Matzelevich said. “Malcolm, the same.”
And they showed promise in possession. Full backs Matt Di Rosa and Ben Di Rosa bombed down the wings, giving the Terps numbers in attack. Opportunities soon followed. Brayan Padilla had a good look diverted for a corner kick. Eric Matzelevich looked primed to score but an offside flag foiled his attempt.
But when the assistant’s flag didn’t intervene, Matzelevich made good on his chance. In the 17th minute, the Terps won the ball high up the pitch, Johnston slipped a ball through to the striker. And Matzelevich showed no hesitation, sending a rocket off the bar and into the back of the net.
“You wish for those opportunities,” Matzelevich said. “Obviously [I] hit it well and fortunately it went in the goal.”
Maryland sustained its pressure after the goal, with Padilla augmenting his influence on the game. He starred in the No. 10 role, directing a fearsome press while also serving as a playmaker in the final third. On two accounts he came close when aiming for the top corner from speculative distances — but couldn’t quite find the back of the net.
Akron had some positive spells of its own towards the end of the half. With the Terps’ influence waning, the Zips strung together lengthy periods of possession. Despite being pinned back for the last 10 minutes of the first half, the Terps staggered into the break with a 1-0 lead.
After being quiet for the first 45 minutes of the game, Akron forward David Egbo woke up for the second half. He started the period by causing Maryland’s back four numerous problems. In the 49th minute, he expertly fed his strike partner Diego Pacheco through on goal, but the forward rattled his shot off the post. The near-miss served as a warning for the damage Akron could do on the counter.
The Terps pushed forward nonetheless. Orchestrated by Padilla, and carried out by Matzelevich, Maryland’s press continuously forced the Zips into difficult passes — efforts that often went awry. But the visitors did find Egbo more often in the second half, who constantly fed Pacheco. It took numerous big tackles from center backs Johannes Bergmann and Brett St. Martin in order to for the Terps to maintain their lead.
“Our backline did a good job blocking shots down the stretch,” Ben Di Rosa said. “[Neumann] was good in goal.”
While Maryland couldn’t keep opponents out for the first three games — surrendering five goals — they kept a crucial clean sheet at Ludwig on Friday. With Matzelevich’s goal complemented by a solid defensive effort, the Terps grinded out a win.
“I can’t speak highly enough of how well our players came out and competed,” Cirovski said.