13 games into the season, Maryland men’s soccer has seen a plethora of scenarios. Injuries? Absolutely. Disappointing losses? Done. Dramatic overtime winners? Oh, yes.
Yet despite numerous good results , Maryland hasn’t quite found a rhythm. That is, until Friday night, when they topped No.6 Indiana 3-0. For the first time since last winter, the Terps looked like title contenders. Every pass was crisp, every clearance decisive, every finish clinical. And they produced their best performance in months at the right time, coupling shutdown defense with vicious intent in attack — and indicating just how dangerous this team can be in the coming weeks.
Assertive in attack
Coach Sasho Cirovski’s favorite word might be “crisp” — a way of emphasizing connectivity in attack. And it’s occasionally proved to be an elusive concept for this Maryland team. There are reasons — new faces, injuries, inexperience — why the team has lacked a bite going forward. Yet the dogs have remained hungry for goals. On Friday, it showed.
Maryland became accustomed to facing counter-attacking football against Georgetown last Monday. On Friday, the Terps took a page out of the Hoyas’ playbook, driving forward quickly whenever they could.
It started in the 9th minute. Eli Crognale, deployed in the No. 10 role, found Eric Matzelevich in the box. The striker got the ball out of his feet and lashed a shot just wide of the far post. It was a resounding statement of intent for the ruthless 81 minutes that followed.
After comfortably playing on the back foot until the 15th minute, Maryland caught the Big Ten’s best defense off guard.
Playing while running toward your own goal is a defenders’ worst nightmare. But the speed of Maryland’s attack was such that the Hoosiers had no option. Ben Di Rosa’s driven cross had Indiana reeling in the box. With momentum going toward their own net, the Indiana center backs simply couldn’t react in time.
Indeed, Kovacic’s opportunistic finish was the product of a well-placed ball, right at the ideal moment.
There was an obvious injection of confidence after Maryland’s opener. The Terps passed quicker and got more creative on the ball. First, Justin Gielen broke out a few tricks.
Then, Johannes Bergmann showed off his vision from the center back position.
The second goal truly embodied Maryland’s philosophy on the night. From the center circle, it took five touches for Maryland to find the back of the net. Matt Di Rosa won the ball in the middle of the pitch, and confidently back heeled it into the path of Gielen. He found Malcolm Johnston, who squared it to Matzelevich. After 13 seconds, Matzelevich was punching the air in jubilant celebration.
But the goal was more than a quick counter attack. A series of clever runs diverted Indiana’s defenders, creating an ideal scoring opportunity.
When Di Rosa first won the ball, two Indiana center backs charged on his heavy pass, leaving both Matzelevich and Johnston in space. Gielen edged out the two defenders to the ball — setting up the Terps well.
Secondly, Matzelevich drew his marker out wide, giving Johnston space to receive the ball from Gielen.
And finally, Gielen made his most important move of the game, forming an overlap around Johnston, momentarily diverting a defender and creating an ideal passing lane to Matzelevich.
Thus, the striker had plenty of time to pick his spot.
By the second half, Maryland’s confidence was clear. Defending a 3-0 lead, the Terps steadily soaked up pressure before hitting with menace. Gielen, having struggled for consistency so far, provided an excellent shift on the right wing. He seemed to be more comfortable with Crognale in an advanced position. This confident chop and layoff for Matzelevich deserved a goal:
Imperious on defense
After beating Indiana in the 2018 semifinal, Maryland prepared for an energetic start from the Hoosiers. The away side met that expectation, possessing the ball early and looking to exploit Maryland’s defense with long diagonal balls. But Maryland established its defensive shape, and forced the visitors to play the ball out of the back. With the Terps covering passing options, Indiana had difficulty finding open men.
Early in the match, Gielen and Matzelevich embodied that system. The two cut off the passing lanes, forcing Indiana to play a risky pass into a high pressure situation. Ready for the long ball, Ben Di Rosa covered his man and forced a turnover in Indiana’s half.
But Indiana did have opportunities to show why it has one of the best attacks in the nation. The Hoosiers broke the Terps’ defensive system on multiple occasions, creating chances in the final third. However, Maryland recovered quickly, denying any clear looks.
On the few instances when Maryland was caught out, the defense worked in tandem to avoid any risky balls, clearing into their own attacking half. Against fast and physical teams, winning second balls — opportunities to win possession after an original pass — is absolutely vital. Maryland was first to a lot of them, especially on the defensive end.
Indiana likes to utilize its pace of the wings and look for crosses toward opportunistic forwards. But both of Maryland’s full backs recovered quickly, holding their own in one-on-one matchups and giving wingers no option but to play back.
The Terps’ defensive shape was also excellent. Johnston and Gielen tracked back on defense, forming a more conservative 4-4-2 when the Terps were without the ball. This meant Maryland could defend with two deep-lying lines of four — ideally suited for extended periods out of possession.
Maryland continued to put in a defensive shift for the entirety of the match. The box score backed up its effort, as Maryland didn’t allow a single shot on goal.
Yale and the weeks ahead
Searching for parallels between this year’s squad and last year’s might be a fruitless endeavor. After all, despite Cirovski’s emphasis on a consistent system, the two teams are radically different. But it’s hard to ignore the poetic similarities between the Indiana result and last year’s 1-0 win over Denver.
The two games came almost exactly a year apart, and in eerily similar circumstances. Prior to the Denver match, the Terps had struggled through a difficult few contests, culminating in a narrow loss to a top opponent. They needed a big win against a tough team — and they completed a 1-0 drubbing. The situation was almost identical this year, except the Terps added two more to their margin of victory.
Whether this triggers a miracle run analogous to last year is impossible to predict. There’s lots of soccer left to play, and based on Maryland’s bad luck with injuries, there may be more obstacles to overcome. At the very least, Maryland showed its credentials. Upcoming opponents Yale and Ohio State — as well as the rest of the Terps’ Big Ten slate — should be wary that Maryland can produce this kind of performance.
As Cirovski confidently declared after the match: “This is proof in our locker room that we have the mettle and the quality to be a contender.”