Long balls beat out measured build up in men’s soccer’s loss at Penn State

It took 9 minutes for for Maryland men’s soccer to seize a lead against Penn State, and just under 3 to extend that lead to two. Both goals were off sweeping moves down the right side of the pitch. The first was probably the best Maryland had scored all season — a pass down the line, a cut back, another ball forward, and a final tantalizing assist for a curled finish. The second, although slightly lucky, utilized the same flowing attack. 

It was three dominant minutes from the Terps, and good for a 2-0 lead. But Penn State stormed back with a signature style of its own — long passes bombarding the Terps back line. The home side notched 3 goals, including the winner in overtime.

The two styles could not have been more different. And it was the simple that triumphed over the silky as Maryland fell on the road. 

Flowing Terps 

On the road against Ohio State, Maryland had to sacrifice some of its usual possession-based play for a more pragmatic 90 minutes. The new tactics worked, with a more direct style yielding two crucial goals for Maryland’s first away win of the year.

Against a big, physical Penn State side, Maryland made no such sacrifice. After a choppy few opening minutes, the Terps willingly put the ball on the ground and passed around their opponents. The first goal reflected that mantra — a classy curler from Eli Crognale after a flowing buildup. 

Maryland continued to push on after the opener. While the second goal relied on a lucky bounce, with an offside flag possible, the build up was once again incredibly smooth. 

The move didn’t get the classy finish it may have deserved, but Gielen found himself in the right place at the right time to get a second for the Terps.

With a comfortable 2-0 lead after 13 minutes, Maryland became more conservative in attack. Malcolm Johnston hobbled off with an injury midway through the first half, prompting a tactical shift from Sasho Cirovski. He moved to a 3-5-2 [from a 4-2-3-1] to offer some size in the center of defense. 

Theoretically, this would open more space for Maryland’s wide players to operate. But when those opportunities came, the Terps weren’t sharp enough. Their sloppiness was most apparent when Justin Harris had a golden chance to feed Gielen through for 3-0, but was just a second late on the pass.

In the second half, Maryland exercised a similar style — albeit under different circumstances. The Nittany Lions, back in the game, pushed up in search of a winner. They deployed their defensive line very high, giving Maryland bountiful space to exploit. 

The Terps did so on a few occasions, but Penn State recovered with aplomb each time.

Sometimes, the Nittany Lions simply caught up to Eric Matzelevich.

And on others, Penn State’s goalie Kris Shakes came up with a big stop to keep the Terps out. 

“They played a pretty high line,” Matzelevich said. “The channel balls and balls in behind were really effective tonight.”

Still, the Terps were unable to add a crucial third — a likely winner in an intense match.

Direct Nittany Lions 

Penn State played the complete opposite brand of soccer. While the Terps emphasized flowing, intricate build up, the Nittany Lions found it more effective to launch balls into Maryland’s half. 

In the early goings, Maryland handled the aerial assault well. The communication between Niklas Neumann and his back four was excellent, so the Terps didn’t get caught out. The keeper was often on hand to come off his line and make timely clearances.

After going down 2-0, Penn State was even more hellbent on playing long. In numerous situations, the Nittany Lions ignored wide open runners, instead opting to try to play behind the Maryland defense.

Maryland had to weather numerous nervous moments, with the center backs getting caught facing away from the ball. Once or twice, the Terps should have been caught out, but last gasp defense saved them.

In response to the bombardment, Cirovski brought in the tall and physically Chris Rindov. For the last 15 minutes of the first half, the freshman was instrumental in winning headers at the back. But he couldn’t stop Penn State’s opener, an organized set piece, with Brandon Hackenberg ghosting between Maryland’s center backs for a header. 

With a fragile 2-1 lead, the Terps needed a solid defensive performance in the second half. However, the Nittany Lions exploited space in between the center backs and full backs. In finding those channels, they dragged Maryland’s center backs across — creating difficult matchups.

“Penn State started playing even more direct than normal,” Cirovski said. “And started dumping balls in behind our backs.”

The set up for their equalizer reflected that strategy. Rindov bumped Aaron Molloy, awarding Penn State a free kick in a dangerous area.

And from the resulting cross, Kyle May tied the game with a first time strike. 

With the game level, Penn State continued to pump long balls. The strategy almost won the game in regular time, but Neumann provided a crucial save to keep the score level at two.

In overtime, Maryland finally ran out of gas. It was a diagonal pass and loose ball that eventually did the trick. Penn State was the beneficiary of a fortunate bounce, which Christian Sload leathered into the top corner. 

“I just think they made one more play than we did,” Cirovski said. 

Over the course of a long and draining college soccer season, a team will have to get used to defending multiple styles of play. From the fast, innovative counter attacks of Georgetown, to the measured build up of Indiana, Maryland has seen it all. But in recent weeks, the long-ball game has come into the fold. It hadn’t been an issue until Tuesday, when the traditional and direct triumphed over modern and flowing. 

Perhaps large and direct teams are Maryland’s toughest opponents. But they have adjusted to counter attacks, and nullified Indiana. If new and old collide again, chances are Maryland will be prepared.