Maryland men’s soccer is focusing on the positives amid slow start

Goals from open play have become elusive for Maryland men’s soccer over the last two years. In 2018, the Terps needed 476 minutes to score, and a further 83 to find the back of the net without the help of a set piece. Through the first 3 games, similar struggles were evident. A corner kick saved the Terps in their season opener against USF. Their best chance against Virginia came from a lofted free kick. 

But their matchup last Friday at UCLA was a different story. In the 5th minute, a ferocious press gave midfielder Eli Crognale time to pick out a pass to Eric Matzelevich, who saw his first effort saved but turned in the rebound. It was an important goal — one that meant more than a 1-0 lead on the road. 

For the first time in six games, the Terps had scored from open play. Although they didn’t leave Los Angeles with a win, Matzelevich’s fifth-minute strike showed Maryland’s potential as a fearsome attacking unit. And if that moment can be sustained for 90 minutes, Maryland could develop into a dangerous team.

“I feel like it’s coming,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We’ve scored a couple goals and I think we can continue that.” 

Cirovski can draw many positives from Maryland’s tepid 1-2 start. Although defensive mistakes have proved costly, the injury-crippled front line has managed to piece together brief moments of brilliance. And with the Terps now without a single starter from last season among their front four, such moments could potentially only multiply over the coming weeks. 

Before an ACL tear ended winger Paul Bin’s season, Maryland projected to have both experience and talent in its front line. But since he and William James Hervé were lost to injury, the Terps have been forced to look elsewhere. The new faces — namely Justin Gielen and Brayan Padilla — have looked promising. But prior to last Friday’s 3-2 loss in Los Angeles, Maryland had struggled to piece together cohesive attacking sequences. 

“The attacking relationships takes time,” Cirovski said. “We’re just trying to… push our guys along to get better. And we are.” 

These struggles aren’t without reason, though. Cirovksi’s teams have historically been built on a similar system. He likes to play with a creative No. 10 who orchestrates the offense and directs a high press. He also relies on creative wingers who can both score and provide assists from wide areas. Fitting the pieces to a system is no easy task, and with experienced players sidelined, the Terps have been spending most of the season building from the ground up. 

Despite inexperience in the system, Maryland has a unique blend of dedicated and tactically astute players. Gielen personifies the Maryland approach. A natural No. 9, the Baltimore Celtic product has spent most of his minutes on either wing, pressing intelligently and winning the ball back in dangerous areas.

“If we learn to incorporate [our pressing] for a full 90 minutes there aren’t many teams that can play with us,” Gielen said. 

So too has Padilla. He was one of Maryland’s standouts against UCLA, spending time at the No. 10 as well as both left and right wing. His efforts were rewarded with a magnificent curled free kick into the top right corner that opened his Maryland account. 

“We feel pretty good,” Padilla said. “Our offensive looks good, our pressing looks good. We look more compact.”

The one constant has been Matzelevich. His high intensity play style is ideally suited to Maryland’s dogged press, but his intensity is such that it can hinder his ability to put the ball in the net. Twice against USF, the junior should have scored, but indecisiveness and miscues prevented him from finding the back of the net. 

Still, he’s been involved in some fantastic, flowing sequences for the Terps that with each game have become more prevalent. Last season’s Maryland team didn’t truly click until late in the year — and rode the momentum to a national championship. This squad is of a similar mold. And it has an opportunity to continue to build this Friday as they gear up for a national championship rematch against Akron at Ludwig Field.

The Zips are experiencing similar struggles to the Terps, but both teams are capable of incredibly damaging offensive sequences. Uncertainty and injuries are rife, but the Terps are slowly piecing together moments that could make them a dangerous matchup. It’s just a question of figuring things out.

“The team is in good spirits. We feel good about the progress we made from the Virginia game,” Cirovski said. “And we’re excited for Friday.”