Eric Matzelevich was enduring a quiet game at Ludwig Field. While he’d been lively, the junior hadn’t been his usual sharp self through 64 minutes in the NCAA Tournament first round against Iona. That changed in the 65th.
He received a pass 30 yards from goal, took two touches and rifled a shot into the top right corner, scoring a crucial second goal for Maryland. His belter was one of four in an emphatic Maryland performance. While the Terps took some time to find their feet, they proved to be too much for a defensive Iona team, beating the Gaels 4-0 and advancing to the NCAA tournament second round.
“When you have so many chances in a game, you’re gonna start putting some away,” Maryland forward Luke Brown said. “It was good to capitalize.”
Winless in its last two at Ludwig Field, Maryland had been beaten by some fluid, pass-oriented teams. Both Indiana and Michigan came to College Park and truly played their way to wins, knocking the ball around the Terps. Iona posed a different challenge. Part of the physical Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Gaels came into Thursday night with the most fouls conceded in the NCAA.
For the opening 10 minutes, the Gaels showed no signs of such physicality. On the contrary, they came out the more assertive of the two sides, pushing Maryland back into its own half. Any Maryland fears, however, were momentary.
It started with Eli Crognale getting on the ball more. Looking to dominate possession, coach Sasho Cirovski deployed Crognale in a deeper lying role. The new position worked wonders for the Terps. Crognale served as a calming presence in the middle of the pitch, orchestrating attacks and letting Maryland’s play develop in front of him.
“He really helps settle us down when he’s got the ball,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “He’s got really good range with his passing.”
His impact was evident in Maryland’s opener. Crognale picked out a wide open Eric Matzelevich on the left wing, feeding the striker on a beeline towards goal. A couple of rebounds later, Matt Di Rosa floated a cross to the back post, which Justin Gielen met. His header was timed to perfection, with the ball darting back across the goal and into the bottom corner to put the home side up 1-0.
“Matt Di Rosa’s cross was really brilliant,” Cirovski said. “And [Gielen], that was a perfect header.”
After Gielen’s opener, the Iona team of games past showed itself. While Maryland tried to spread the field, Iona tightened spaces cut off outlets for the Terps. Thus, Maryland had few options, dragged into a stringy, defensive contest. The Gaels rarely threatened, with their top scorer, Mauro Bravo, missing due to suspension. Niklas Neumann had very little to do in goal for the Terps, with Iona only registering three shots in the first half.
“Our defensive pressure got better and better,” Cirovski said. “We made it very difficult for Iona to get any rhythm.”
The second half started to follow a similar narrative. As the Terps looked to turn a 1-0 advantage into 2-0, Iona deployed is same compact formation. And Maryland suffered some nervy moments. Right back Ben Di Rosa endured a heavy clash with two opposing players. He exited the game clutching his left shoulder — leaving Maryland without one of its most vital attacking players.
The Terps looked exposed without him for a few minutes. Iona pushed further up the pitch, exploiting Maryland down their right side and creating chances inside the box. The Gaels could have easily made it 1-1 in the 61st minute, when Esad Mackic found himself clean through on goal. The striker slipped as he made contact, sending the ball outside of the post.
Four minutes later, his mistake was punished by Matzelevich. His wonder striker put the Terps up 2-0 and quelled Iona’s comeback bid.
“We knew we were gonna get a second,” Matzelevich said. “It was just a matter of when.”
Two quickly became three for the Terps. In the 73rd minute, Maryland added another to put the game beyond reach. Brown, searching for his first goal as a Terp, had a shot, but Giuliano Santucci equalled his effort. The rebound fell to the feet of Malcolm Johnston, who slotted it home for 3-0.
At that point, Cirovski was able to rotate his squad. Crucially, William James Hervé made his Maryland return, getting the final 15 minutes of the match on the wing. One of Maryland’s best attacking options, the sophomore has endured an injury-plagued season.
“It was good to see a little bit of [Hervé’s] creativity there,” Cirovski said. “Even in the late stages of the game.”
In the 82nd minute, Brown finally found the net for the first time in a Maryland shirt. Mike Heitzmann was dragged down in the box. After the referee pointed to the spot, Heitzmann immediately handed the ball to Brown. The Englishman stepped up and rifled the ball into the left side of the net, sealing the rout.
“Yeah, finally,” Brown said. “That’s the longest time I’ve been without scoring in my whole life. It’s been tough, but I kept chipping away and finally it came.”
The 65th minute marked a turning point in Maryland’s performance. When Matzelevich rifled his goal into the top corner, the Terps found another gear. Three goals later, Maryland secured a trip to the NCAA Tournament second round. Should the offense stay strong, they might be on pace for a journey to the third.
“I’m delighted to get a shutout. I’m delighted to get the result and to move on in the tournament,” Cirovski said.