After hoisting the College Cup in 2018, reality quickly set in for Maryland men’s soccer. Due to both graduation and injury, the Terps were to return only four starters. They had lost half of their goals as well as three members of one of the nation’s best defenses. But, in such a historic program, roster turnover is hardly a new commodity.
So this offseason, head coach Sasho Cirovski went to work. He brought in the versatile Luke Brown from Hofstra. He converted redshirt freshman and natural right back Nick Richardson to a holding midfielder. He turned to Brayan Padilla to fill the void when winger Paul Bin tore his ACL on the team’s first day of preseason. The new faces appeared to have replaced the old.
But a 3-1 preseason loss on Saturday at the hands of North Carolina showed that Maryland may have some work ahead to become a more cohesive unit. It struggled to connect passes together as the Tar Heels relentlessly pressed the back four. The attackers lacked service, limiting offensive opportunities. For the first 45 minutes, the Terps were simply outplayed.
The North Carolina matchup proved that being connected — a word Cirovski claims to be among his favorites — will be crucial and not all that easy. Maryland will look to transfer the new additions into a cohesive unit as it hunts down another national title.
“We’re going to become a really connected team because all the character qualities and the talent is there,” Cirovski said, “but it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Last year’s departures have been replaced with technical, dynamic players. Cirovski has options at every position, completing a roster that can match most in the nation for talent. But with so many new faces, connecting passes and pressing the opposition could be difficult early in the season. If those challenges can be overcome, Maryland will once again be in the mix for College Cup glory.
In Maryland’s final preseason contest, North Carolina pressed high up the pitch, sending five players to win the ball off four Maryland defenders. Whenever the backline managed to find Nick Richardson in the defensive midfield role, he was immediately pressured. This cut off most options for the Terps and forced them into long diagonal passes.
“We haven’t seen that kind of pressure in spring or in preseason,” Cirovski said. “It was a bit of an adjustment for the players.”
Cirovski emphasizes playing the ball out of the back through his defense. With opponents such as North Carolina looking to intercept passes and force Maryland into long balls, an understanding among the defensive line is vital. All four presumptive starters on Thursday — Matt Di Rosa, Brett St. Martin, Johannes Bergmann and Ben Di Rosa — have played minutes together, but the Terps could miss calming presence of goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and center back Donovan Pines.
“We’re still trying to… connect our back six to our front four a little bit,” Cirovski said. “At times some of the spacing hasn’t been what I think it should be.”
Further up the pitch, the combinations are even less experienced. Last year, Maryland’s midfield trio of Andrew Samuels, Eli Crognale and Amar Sedjic balanced effectively. This season, Maryland will look to Richardson to hold, and Brown further up the pitch. While both have the talent to compete, they will need to experience the system to complement Crognale’s relentless engine.
“We all have good qualities that complement each other,” Crognale said. “It’s important to have that relationship… that’s what preseason was about.”
Despite the unfamiliarity among the midfield players, options at the attacking and box-to-box roles project to help put the ball in the net. Brown is a consistent goal-scorer — he tallied 17 goals in three years at Hofstra— and Crognale’s creative instincts will be valuable in the final third. Furthermore, freshman David Kovacic has shown promise and can play either the box-to-box or defensive role.
“[Kovacic] is also a really quality midfielder who can provide really high soccer IQ,” Crognale said.
In 2018, the Terps took 476 minutes to put the ball in the net. Despite the talent in the front line, lack of service as well as misfires halted the offense.
However, last year’s weakness could be this year’s strength. Eric Matzelevich will be handed starting striker duties, with the creative duo of Padilla and William James Hervé playing on the wings.
Matzelevich has already spent extensive time on the pitch with Hervé, establishing a connection. Padilla missed most of his freshman campaign due to injury but could compliment Hervé and Matzelevich in the front line. Although successful as a winger — he racked up individual accolades in FC Dallas’ academy— Padilla’s attacking instincts make him an option at multiple positions.
“[Padilla] is a goalscorer. He was the player of the year in one of the academy conferences,” Cirovski. “We saw, last year, signs of that.”
Maryland also has Justin Gielen ready to provide minutes as a No. 9 or on the wing. A Baltimore Celtic product, he earned some opportunities as a freshman and caused problems for opposing defenses. If he further adapts to the system, a breakout campaign might be in the works.
With Maryland’s returning talent and its potential impact players on the rise, the Terps have the necessary tools to stay afloat through adversity and offset its losses from a national-title squad.
Although departures and injuries — as well as an uncertain preseason — raised questions as to Maryland’s repeat potential, Cirovski and his squad know that the talent is there to provide a resounding answer. It might just take some time to figure out.
“Once you turn on the bright lights and the games become real, that’s when the most learning really happens,” Cirovski said. “That’s when the urgency comes into play.”