This time last week, Maryland men’s soccer was a team lacking in confidence. Under siege by Indiana, the Terps didn’t have energy or substance going forward. They were pounded for 103 minutes, eventually succumbing to a game-winning penalty that sent them out of the Big Ten tournament.
On Thursday night, against Iona, the Terps were a different team altogether. From the opening whistle, they played with a swagger and confidence conducive to an attacking outburst. Their conviction yielded results. The Terps put four past a struggling Iona team, all vastly different goals that showed the quality Maryland can produce in the final third.
Yet the outburst wasn’t simply a formula of confidence and clinical finishing. Rather, it was the product of a lineup switch, faith in a freshman, and a fundamental attacking attitude from Maryland.
Eli Crognale’s subtle dominance
Eli Crognale has spent the last month as a playmaking No. 10 for the Terps. For the first 3 weeks of his tenure at the position, he was a revelation. His numbers were impressive — a goal or assist in five consecutive games — but they only told half of the story. In a more advanced role, a Maryland attack that had often lacked ideas came alive.
Yet in moving Crognale further up the pitch, Maryland sacrificed the ability to hold on to the ball. Maryland’s new No. 8, David Kovacic filled the spot with aplomb, but is not a player to dictate play from deep. Indeed, the Slovenian is more of a quick passer, adept at moving the ball before opponents realize he has it. Against a physical and defensive team, the Terps needed to emphasize possession. Thus, Cirovski shuffled his lineup, sending Kovacic to the bench and moving Crognale into the No. 8.
It was a revelation for the Terps. Crognale looked at his best in his natural spot, subtly dominating the game from the middle of the pitch. His passing range was constantly on display, with the Senior spraying the ball around to the wings.
He also looked incredibly composed on the ball. A tricky dribbler, Crognale seems to be adept at anticipating opposing players, and getting out of tight spaces. Three Gaels descended on Crognale as soon as he trapped the ball, and he either got himself out of those situations or drew a foul to allow Maryland to reset.
By the end of the first half, Crognale had dropped even further back, even playing between Maryland’s two center backs to start play from deep. His superior range meant Matt Di Rosa and Ben Di Rosa could push further up the field, confident that their senior captain would find them quickly.
While Crognale will likely spend time at the No. 10 role against more aggressive opponents, he was incredibly impactful as a box-to-box midfielder on Thursday night — vital in helping the Terps win.
Isaac Ngobu’s energy
Freshman left back Isaac Ngobu enjoyed an impressive cameo. Phased out of playing time by Matt Di Rosa playing his natural position, the freshman got his chance Thursday night. And in an energized 44 minutes, he didn’t disappoint. Deployed in a left midfield role, his electric pace and quick movement off the ball was a real problem for the Gaels.
He showed more than just athletic prowess, though. Indeed, his decision making was excellent, especially important due to Ngobu’s inferior size. Standing at a lanky 5’7, Ngobu has used size to his advantage on Thursday night. His incredibly low center of gravity made him almost impossible to knock off the ball, as the junior was able to cut and play quick passes in to dangerous areas.
His hard work was almost rewarded with a goal on a couple of occasions. With Iona playing a narrow back four, Ngobu was afforded space to make late runs into the middle from the weak side. Twice in the second half, Ngobu’s opposite number lost track of his surging movement, and the freshman was inches away from what would have been a deserved goal.
Team-wide confidence on the ball
Although willing to beat a man in a one-on-one situation, Maryland is a team that emphasizes connected play in the final third. Rarely do the Terps put their heads down and dribble. Yet against Iona, they were willing to be a bit more aggressive with the ball, pushing their opponents back, or creating space in enclosed spaces.
The tricky freshman Justin Harris established that tone early on in the game. Pacey and armed with good feet, the winger looked to take on his opposite as much as possible. It yielded some early results, creating space for crosses.
In the second half, the occasionally conservative Justin Gielen took inspiration from his opposite winger. Playing against a slower opponent, Gielen looked for chances to get to the endline and whip in crosses for runners into the box. That strategy came off a couple of times, adding an extra dimension to the Terps’ attack.
By the end of the game, the Terps were playing with confidence. No longer in dire need to find the net, they slowed the pace down, cerebrally seeing out the game. This slower play provided a platform for Maryland to break out some more exciting moves in the closing minutes. Coming off his first Maryland goal, Luke Brown embodied that philosophy.
Iona came to College Park a subdued team. Aside from an aggressive first 10 minutes, the Gaels didn’t offer much going forward. Regardless of their opponents’ underperformance, the Terps were magnificent, playing at their confident, flowing best. While more difficult opponents await, if Maryland can execute a similar quality of play, it will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.