Maryland men’s soccer fullbacks Ben Di Rosa and Matt Di Rosa have become accustomed to a certain sight in recent weeks. The opposition’s center midfielder wallops a long, airborne pass over their heads into the corner. On the right side of the pitch, Ben has to scamper back and make a clearance with a forward bearing down on him. On the left, it’s Matt’s duty to do the same.
It’s an ugly and taxing duty, one that becomes hellish late in games. Yet it’s one the twins have been able to execute, bar one or two minor errors. It must have come as a relief that on Sunday afternoon the fullbacks faced a different kind of threat. The visiting Michigan Wolverines dragged Ben and Matt wide instead, forcing them to mark tricky wingers who looked to loop balls into the box.
But as the score reflected, the change may not have been for the better, as the Terps fell 4-2 against a width-oriented Michigan and simply had no answer for a team that constantly attacked from the wing.
“Our box defending has to get a lot better all the way around,” Ben Di Rosa said. “They could have had a couple more.”
Last Tuesday it was a loose ball in the box that glanced off Nick Richardson. On Sunday, it was a mishit clearance from Johannes Bergmann. On two occasions in the last week, Maryland conceded a decisive goal thanks to an unfortunate bounce resulting from a cross. Bad luck aside, Maryland has struggled to defend its own 18 yard box over the last two games. Against Michigan, the Wolverines exploited that for two of its four goals.
A fast start
Although the Terps were eventual losers, they enjoyed an excellent start to the game. Coach Sasho Cirvoski has regularly emphasized his desire for the Terps to play attacking soccer, utilizing the Terps’ athleticism on the wings to generate chances. In the early goings, that vision came to fruition with Ben Di Rosa as the main provider.
Both of Maryland’s fullbacks have showcased their ability to join the attack and fire in crosses. But that desire hadn’t showed up in the statsheet before Sunday. Against Michigan, Ben Di Rosa saw his countless forward runs yield results.
Seven minutes into the game, the Terps created an overload on the right hand side of the pitch. Michigan’s fullback had to guard two players, Malcolm Johnston and Di Rosa, and the defender fell a step behind. He overcommitted in his recovery, allowing Di Rosa to execute a pretty chop and beat him. Yet the junior still had a lot to do. He took a second man out of the game by pushing the ball towards the byline and cutting it back for a lurking Eric Matzelevich. It was a dream start for the Terps.
Di Rosa and Johnston were both instrumental in Maryland’s second as well. In fact, Johnston showed off perhaps his most important skill of the year — without touching the ball. He deftly stepped over Johannes Bergmann’s sweeping ball, leaving Di Rosa in acres of space and giving him plenty of time to lift a ball for Eli Crognale.
Up 2-1 and looking the more dangerous of the two teams, Maryland projected to be taking all three points. But the Terps were soon forced onto the back foot as Michigan countered with excellent wide play of its own.
Stopping Jack Hallahan
A Mac Hermann Semifinalist in 2018, Michigan winger Jack Hallahan has struggled to live up to the hype generated by his excellent junior year. After scoring eight goals and assisting another eight last year, he’s regressed to three goals and six assists in 2019.
It was hard to see why on Sunday. Hallahan was a constant threat for Matt Di Rosa, often cutting onto his dangerous left foot and looking to either cross or shoot. Michigan fed him early and often, and Hallahan started with a vicious intent.
While slightly overhit, the lofted ball in the 10th minute was indicative of a torrid 90 minutes to come. For most of the game, he ran aggressively at Matt Di Rosa, pushing Maryland’s fullback into his own box. His retreat was emulated by the rest of the Terps’ backline, often leaving the defense flat-footed and unable to react as lofted crosses bombarded the penalty area.
Such was the case 10 minutes later. On an almost identical play, Di Rosa was pushed back into the box. Bergmann (No. 5) wasn’t prepared for the cross and got caught in an empty space. Thus, when he should have been on hand to head the ball away from danger, the German could only watch as Hallahan’s cross whipped over his head. Had Ben Di Rosa not bailed the Terps out, Michigan would have tied it.
By the second half, Michigan had cemented its strategy. Two minutes in, it yielded an equalizer. While Hallahan was slightly fortunate that Bergmann’s clearance went awry, the senior put his cross on a sixpence for Derick Broche. On the play, Brett St. Martin got caught a little too high for Maryland, momentarily taking his eye of Roche, and it was time enough for Roche to find the bottom corner.
A few minutes later, Hallahan got a deserved goal. The same duo linked up for Michigan’s third, only this time Roche provided the cross.
Hallahan’s 90 minutes were among the more dominant performances Maryland has faced all season. He attacked with menace and finished with aplomb. In the collegiate game, it’s rare to see a single player make the difference, but on Sunday, Hallahan was an exception.
Maryland desperately tried to push for a third in the final 20 minutes, and they came close. Luke Brown had a good opportunity foiled by the Michigan defense.
There were other chances, too, as Matzelevich had a magisterial strike tipped over the bar in the last minute.
But the Terps simply couldn’t produce a moment of magic. In a sense, they got beat at their own game, as Michigan exploited the wide areas where Maryland simply couldn’t. And because of it, the Terps now face a difficult road test at Northwestern in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
The Wildcats will pose a new threat for the Di Rosas and the rest of the Maryland squad, but it’s a must-win game for a team that needs to hold onto a lead.