David Kovacic’s first touch in a Maryland shirt wasn’t his best. He received a flicked pass from Justin Gielen, and failed to shield the ball as a South Florida defender dispossessed him.
His next few were magnificent — a series of twists, turns and flicks amid constant pressure in a packed midfield. With South Florida trying to tighten the game and slow Maryland down, Kovacic picked the pace up.
He played 29 minutes off the bench in his Maryland debut, fluctuating between the composed midfielder, and the mercurial footballing zealot that did too much on the ball. Kovacic went through the standard freshman adversity, switching between a starting and bench role. Recently, he’s become an indispensable part of the squad, starting every game for the past month, showing sufficient growth to hold down a spot in Maryland’s lineup.
“He’s grown in really well,” Maryland senior Eli Crognale said. “He’s got that confidence now to kind of dominate the midfield.”
Kovacic’s Slovenian roots, combined with an Americanization of his game, have made him a unique midfielder. He still relies on European, finesse-based play, but has also acclimatized to the physical, high intensity American college game. And while he took some time to adapt, Kovacic has established himself as a valuable piece in Maryland’s midfield.
For Kovacic, playing in the United States didn’t seem like an option. After three years playing for NK Krško — a mid-table first division club — Kovacic turned his eyes elsewhere. His mother recommended he get an education, and inspired by a friend who went to Duke, Kovacic embarked on a college hunt.
He sent out emails to the top programs in college soccer, providing a highlight video with each. Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski was almost immediately intrigued. The two talked on the phone, and shortly after, Kovacic flew out on an official visit. By late 2018, the Slovenian had cemented his commitment to the Terps.
“I really like it, I really liked the school,” Kovacic said.
In the early days of his Maryland career, the transition on the pitch wasn’t quite as smooth as his immigration. Although his quality and experience at a professional level stood out, he struggled to adjust to the American game.
“The beginning was hard because European soccer is different,” Kovacic said. “We play more possession. We don’t run as much.”
To further compound his difficulties, Kovacic wasn’t getting the opportunities to prove himself on the pitch. With a fit Brayan Padilla, the Terps deployed Crognale at the No. 8, Kovacic’s strongest position. Thus, the Slovenian was forced to compete for minutes with Maryland’s senior captain — a near impossible task.
On October 2, though, Kovacic got his chance. After Padilla tore his ACL in pregame warmups, Cirovski inserted Kovacic into the starting lineup. He rewarded his coach’s faith with two goals, sealing a 3-1 win over Rutgers. After scoring his second, he ran over to Padilla on the sideline, celebrating with his injured teammate. The moment embodied not only Kovacic’s goalscoring prowess, but also his team-oriented approach.
“I’m just here to help the team,” Kovacic said. “I’m not here for my own personal gain.”
Following his breakout night, Kovacic endured a difficult stretch. Over the next three games, he played a combined 63 minutes, victim of poorer performances and squad rotation, as Cirovski experimented with a decimated squad.
On October 18, he got on the scoresheet again, banging home the opener in a 3-0 rout of Indiana. He stayed on the pitch for 86 minutes that day, pacifying the Indiana midfield and proving to be vital in Maryland’s counter-attacking setup. The goal — and subsequent stellar performance — earned Kovacic a starting spot for good.
“60, 70 percent through the season, Sasho figured he needed to put a lot of his trust in him,” Crognale said. “And kind of just ride him out in the midfield.”
In the month since, his inclusion at the No. 8 position has become a revelation for a Maryland midfield that has struggled for chemistry. By playing Kovacic in a box-to-box role, Cirovski has been able to push the creative Crognale up to the No. 10 spot. It proved to be vital for the Terps, as Crognale scored or assisted for five games straight.
While Kovacic’s link up play was always going to be an asset, his work on the other side of the ball was more uncertain. A naturally attacking player, Kovacic came to Maryland a defensive work in progress. In the early stages of his career, he labored through physical games, finding it difficult to win the ball against aggressive opponents. He has since adjusted on both sides of the ball, developing his defensive discipline and learning from his midfield partner, Nick Richardson.
The duo didn’t click seamlessly. Richardson, a converted center back, is a scrappy player, reading the game well and tackling hard. Kovacic doesn’t share his hard-nosed tendencies. The dichotomy meant they were sometimes out of sync, leaving Crognale isolated and frustrated further up the pitch.
However, they soon figured it out. Richardson operated more conservatively, starting to play in front of the defense, with Kovacic playing further up the pitch but dropping back to receive the ball. In doing so, Kovacic drew defenders away from Crognale — opening up gaps for the No. 10 as well as himself.
“[Kovacic] isn’t the most dominant physical player, but he finds ways to get in the gaps,” Richardson said. “He distributes as one of the best players in the country.”
Thus, the three of them have been able to pass around opposing midfielders, and provide regular service to Maryland’s front three. The linkup between the trio was absolutely crucial in the Terps’ win against Indiana — with two of Maryland’s goals involving all three in the buildup. Richardson’s work rate also allowed Kovacic a bit more freedom to distribute in that game, easing his defensive responsibilities.
“He covers a lot of ground,” Kovacic said. “I like it because I can be a bit lazy with him.”
Kovacic’s first touch for Maryland highlighted his shortcomings in the collegiate game. With every touch, tap, and goal since, he’s improved. And by establishing himself as Maryland’s starting No. 8, he’s unlocked Crognale’s potential while maximizing Richardson’s output. In short, he’s gone from inexperienced to invaluable.
“We can see that he’s going to be a great player for us,” Cirovski said. “Not only the rest of this year, but the rest of his career.”