Injuries have hit Maryland soccer hard this year. ACL tears ended the season for Brayan Padilla and Paul Bin. William James Hervé has played less than 30 minutes, struggling with muscle problems. Intermittent absences from David Kovacic, Eli Crognale, Malcolm Johnston and Justin Gielen, have only compounded the Terps’ struggles.
Thus, a knock to a crucial player was the last thing Maryland needed — if not its worst fear. And that apprehension came to reality when Ben Di Rosa exited Sunday’s game against Northwestern after 13 minutes with an illness. With no immediate replacement at right back, coach Sasho Cirovski was forced to reshuffle his lineup.
To fill the void left by Di Rosa’s departure, Cirovski shifted Nick Richardson to right back and brought in freshman Jacob Chakroun to play Richardson’s defensive midfield position. The duo worked admirably to fight off a direct Northwestern team and eventually exert influence in the midfield — later helping Maryland to a vital Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal victory.
Although not in ideal circumstances, Maryland has displayed significant depth this season. Chakroun, Johnston, David Kovacic and Justin Harris — all freshmen — have been forced into the spotlight. And while Maryland has missed Bin and Padilla’s goal-scoring threats, as well as the raw creativity of Hervé, the freshmen have stepped up. Sunday was the embodiment of that, especially in a high stakes matchup.
When Andrew Samuels departed after last season, there appeared to be a gaping hole at the No. 6 role that is so important to Maryland’s system. Richardson has filled Samuels’ boots with aplomb, shepherding the vital area in front of the back line by breaking up play and starting attacks.
But the No. 6 isn’t Richardson’s natural position. The Terps recruited him to play right back. And after he missed the entire 2018 season with a foot injury, the switch to the No. 6 began. Still, his defensive instincts have remained, as the Baltimore native has played center back as part of a back three this year. On Sunday, he showcased his defensive instincts again, albeit at a different position.
The foundation of Richardson’s quality is his ability to read the game. Soccer players with his understanding of where to move to receive a pass, where the ball might bounce next, and in which direction an opposing player might cut, can be plugged in at any position. Despite lacking Di Rosa’s speed, Richardson filled in at right back because of his superior soccer IQ.
First, he showed that ability high up the pitch, thwarting a potentially dangerous Northwestern counter attack.
Had Northwestern’s Matt Moderwell beaten Richardson to the ball, numerous passing lanes — as well as an open channel to dribble at goal — would have opened up.
Instead, Richardson anticipated Moderwell’s touch, figuring the pacey Moderwell would try to knock the ball around and simply outrun him. By expecting that move, Richardson was able to cut off the attack and helped keep the game tied at 0-0.
He did the same later in the first half, only in a deeper and far more dangerous situation. Maryland goalie Niklas Neumann, under tight pressure, played an errant pass that landed right at the feet of a Northwestern player. He tried to feed Moderwell with a first-time ball that would have taken two Terps out of the game. But Richardson got a step on his opponent, halting the pass before playing a quick ball himself and setting up the Terps on the counter.
But Richardson’s game isn’t all about defending. He has surged forward and been involved in numerous Maryland goals this season, reading when he can add an extra body to Maryland’s attack. That instinct was shown in the second half Sunday, as Richardson made lung-busting runs down the right to support Justin Gielen.
He attacked on the overlap — going to Gielen’s right to spread the play wide and create room for a cross.
Richardson also attacked on the underlap, cutting inside and linking up to create a shot for himself.
While neither led to a goal, it was Richardson’s third run of the second half that was incredibly important in Maryland’s 1-0 win. Left open on the far side of the pitch, Richardson advanced forward, creating an angle for a chipped ball from Kovacic. Late to react, both Northwestern defenders overcommitted. One of them fouled Richardson in the box, giving Maryland a penalty kick that Eli Crognale buried for Maryland’s game-winner.
When Richardson shifted to right back, Cirvoski was faced with the difficult task of filling the No. 6 spot. Although slightly thin at the position, he had a few options. The most likely seemed to be to move Johnston from right wing into a midfield spot, pushing Kovacic back into the No. 6. He could have also moved Crognale, an experienced box-to-box midfielder, to a more defensive role.
But Cirovski didn’t choose either. Instead, he introduced Chakroun, a relatively inexperienced freshman — his most significant appearance for the Terps had been a 45-minute run out against Michigan. Chakroun seized his moment, filling in at the spot with confidence and helping Maryland’s midfield exert control of the game, especially in the second half.
Chakroun and Richardson are incredibly different players. Richardson is the embodiment of grit and hard work, complemented by a raw ability to read the game. Chakroun has established himself as a finesse-based player, relying on quick ball movement to take opponents out of the game.
In a gritty game under difficult conditions, Chakroun’s one-touch passing was vital in making sure Maryland didn’t get caught in possession.
Northwestern set up defensively, dropping deep yet looking to press aggressively when Maryland had the ball in the midfield. It would have been easy to get caught out, but Chakroun often moved the ball forward before the defender could react.
He did the same in tighter spaces high up the pitch, allowing the Terps to switch the point of attack.
Chakroun prefers to pass with the outside of his boot, flicking the ball and making a run in the same sweeping motion. In an often stagnant Maryland offense, this generated opportunities for runners to get in behind the defense.
Although Johnston couldn’t quite reach the ball, Chakroun’s constant assertiveness created chances. That kind of spark is rare among freshman and invaluable considering the vital role he had to fill.
It wasn’t a pretty win for Maryland. The Terps seldom played the free-flowing soccer they have relied on at Ludwig Field this season. Their full backs didn’t get forward with the same aggression, and they didn’t create as many chances as usual.
But road victories are hard to come by, especially in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal.
Injury crippled and reliant on players out of their natural position, Maryland didn’t project to have an easy game after Di Rosa went down. But the team rallied around two crucial players who held the system together.
By the second half, Maryland was dominant — an advantage the scoreline failed to convey — and it was less about the tally than it was the quality of performance, and Maryland produced arguably its most convincing away win all season.