In the days leading up to Maryland’s season opener against South Florida, men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski lowered expectations.
“I think there will be some growing pains for this team a little bit,” Cirovski said, “because we did replace a lot at the back, in the midfield and up front.”
But in Thursday night’s match, there were few signs of the disconnect Cirovski alluded to. While the Terps struggled going forward in the opening exchanges, their performance was a cerebral one, showing tactical and mental toughness to overcome an organized and physical USF squad.
Here’s a look at a few areas of importance for last night’s opener, along with a tactical breakdown of Maryland’s performance:
Prior to the season, Cirovski pledged that Maryland would work doggedly off the ball and press high up the pitch. On Thursday, Maryland made good on his promise. With numerous new faces in the starting lineup, pressing as a unit was always going to be a challenge. Yet the Terps excelled in that area, cutting off passing lanes and forcing USF to play numerous long balls.
The duo of striker Eric Matzelevich and attacking midfielder Luke Brown combined successfully to force turnovers in the final third. Matzelevich’s engine and Brown’s tactical instincts created a deadly duo for Maryland’s pressing game. They covered ground efficiently, forcing an inexperienced USF team into mistakes despite being outnumbered.
But there was more to Maryland’s pressing and organization than that in the final third. Though rarely hit on the break, the Terps’ defense worked well in transition, and forced backpasses. The front four then collapsed on the defense, leaving USF no option but to send the ball back into Maryland’s half.
It’s not atypical for a visiting squad to set up defensively at Ludwig Field. USF followed the pattern as many before them. When they had the ball, they counterattacked in a 3-5-2 formation. However, without it, they played a rigid and organized 5-4-1. This created numerous problems for Maryland. First, it gave Matzelevich few channels to run into, and he was often battling one-on-one against strong center backs.
It also cut off outlets to Brown and the wingers to play short passes. This forced Maryland to knock the ball around the defense, trying to find gaps in a disciplined USF setup. The visitors organized two deep-lying lines of five, known as a low block. Facing a disciplined opposition, Maryland sometimes lost patience and resorted to more direct soccer. And although center backs Johannes Bergmann and Brett St. Martin are comfortable playing long balls, it’s not Maryland’s optimum method of attack.
Another method of attack was for the Terps to send full backs Matt Di Rosa and Ben Di Rosa up the wings, surging at the USF defense. For sheer volume of numbers in the final third, the strategy was effective. Still, the visitors remained disciplined and shepherded attacks away from goal.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Terps’ only goal came from a set piece. Crognale took numerous attempts to get his corners right, but finally found Malcom Johnston on a curled cross.
One of the key traits of Maryland’s midfield is its versatility. Brayan Padilla, Nick Richardson, Brown and Crognale are all able to play multiple positions. That worked in Maryland’s favor on Thursday. Cirovski frequently changed his attacking midfield and wing options, providing fresh legs and giving USF different matchups. And the Terps were able to maintain the same shape with different units in.
Despite the numerous changes, the pressing game remained intact. A short preseason combined with a high-energy play style suggested tht Maryland may struggle to maintain the same level of intensity late in the game. The bench stifled any qualms that Maryland may lose its edge. Padilla was the perfect example, spending time at the no. 10 as well as on both wings — pressing with aplomb at all three.
While USF made Maryland work hard for the win, the Terps played a disciplined and tactically sharp 90 minutes. It were often frustrated, but Maryland stuck to its high press and possession-based play style. And in the 70th minute, The Terps were finally rewarded. They will likely have to repeat the same kinda of performance many times at Ludwig Field — teams will come and defend relentlessly. But Maryland showed the mental fortitude to wear down its opponent — and any growing pains were minimized.