It looked like it may be one of those nights for Maryland men’s soccer. South Florida visited Ludwig Field and employed a defensive set up, and for the first 68 minutes, Maryland had very few chances despite dominating possession. But a change in personnel provided the necessary spark.
Midfielder Malcom Johnston entered the game in the 66th minute, and four minutes later rose to bury a corner kick into the back of the net. And Johnston’s quick impact gave Maryland a 1-0 lead it wouldn’t lose.
Johnston’s glancing header was the icebreaker in an otherwise tepid matchup. Still, the Terps took their one major chance and deposited the visiting Bulls 1-0 to open the 2019 season.
“That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” Johnston said. “Looking at the crew, cheering us on… You can’t ask for more than that.”
Both sides took a while to settle into the game, in large part thanks to USF’s defensive set up. The Bulls deployed a 5-4-1 formation and defended with nine men behind the ball, a set up that gave Maryland few opportunities in the opening minutes.
Attacking midfielder Luke Brown regularly found space between USF’s midfield and defensive lines and was afforded some early opportunities. He contributed Maryland’s first shot in the 4th minute, beating his defender before blasting a shot high and wide from outside the box.
The Terps had the first legitimate chance of the contest, as winger Brayan Padilla found striker Eric Matzelevich through on goal. However, his attempt to round the goalie was foiled, leaving the game tied at 0-0 after 11 minutes.
“Sometimes [Eric] works so hard that he doesn’t have his legs to finish,” Cirovski said. “We gotta find the right balance.”
A more physical contest developed for the remainder of the half. The skillful duo of midfielder Eli Crognale and Brown often found space, but was pressured — and often fouled — by an aggressive USF midfield.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen that formation this year,” Cirovski said. “I’m glad we saw it.”
In the last 20 minutes of the first half, Maryland introduced some new faces who found holes in USF’s defensive set up. Matzelevich received regular service and fed marauding wingers in a lively stretch for the Terps. But they didn’t have any spoils to show for the stretch, with a Matzelevich miscue from close range the only real opportunity.
USF registered only one shot in the first half — a speculative strike from distance comfortably corralled by goalie Russell Shealy for one of his two saves on the day. Meanwhile, the Terps had seven shots, but nothing on the board as the first half whistle blew.
Cirovski stuck with the same system for the second half, and for the opening minutes, little changed. USF’s midfield matched up with Maryland’s creative trio, cutting off creative opportunities in the final third. And the Bulls started to look dangerous, pushing their wing backs up the flanks, forcing Maryland’s attack-minded full backs to stay in the defensive third.
In response, Maryland tinkered with the midfield. Brown sat, with David Kovacic moving into the trio. Meanwhile, Johnston was introduced as a right winger. He rewarded Cirovski’s faith with a header into the back of the net with 20 minutes to play.
“Tonight we got the one moment we needed,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “So I’m very pleased.”
The Bulls mustered a few attacks, but the Terps were equal to any bouts of pressure from the away team.
Although the Terps offense was halted for much of the evening, Johnston’s game-winning goal was a positive sign. As Maryland prepares for its second bout with Virginia at nearby Audi Field, it hopes to exorcise the demons of last year’s scoreless streak.
“Hopefully it raises everyone’s confidence,” Crognale said. “Just to step in under the bright lights and perform.”