Maryland men’s soccer is searching for attacking mojo ahead of UCLA clash

Almost 19 minutes into Maryland men’s soccer’s rivalry match against Virginia at Audi Field, attacking midfielder Luke Brown saw an opportunity. Facing a larger defender, Brown cut onto his right foot, creating a half-yard of space. He then lashed at the ball, trying to find the bottom left corner. But he could only watch as the ball flew past the outside of the post. 

It was among the better opportunities Maryland would get in a frustrating 90 minutes against the Cavaliers. Aside from two mistakes within 135 seconds — costing two goals — the Terps played Virginia to a mundane defensive stalemate. Indeed, there were few positives to take from a 2-0 loss that evoked unpleasant memories of 2018’s 476-minute goal drought to open the season. 

And with new faces to incorporate, as well as fitness problems throughout the squad, coach Sasho Cirovski has his hands full trying to sort out a team with dreams of winning another national championship. The defense has held its own, and although shaky at times, Maryland’s midfield is coming together. The Terps’ attack may have reason to worry. With injuries to prolific goalscorers Paul Bin and William James Hervé — as well as a fitness scare for Brown — Maryland needs to find the back of the net, and prove it can do so consistently. 

“Right now we’re lacking ideas… and sharpness with our front players,” Cirovski said. “We’re putting ourselves under too much pressure.” 

Maryland’s solitary goal after 180 minutes of play was midfielder Malcolm Johnston’s flying header to dispatch USF in the season opener. The Terps’ attacking opportunities have been bleak. Striker Eric Matzelevich had two clear opportunities against USF, and at Audi Field defender Johannes Bergmann came inches from his first career goal. Otherwise, Maryland hasn’t had too many good looks. 

It might get worse. With Hervé out for the foreseeable future with a hamstring injury, Maryland has lost one of its best goalscorers for what seems to be the next few games. Brown — a consistent threat at Hofstra and Lionsbridge F.C. — is day-to-day but didn’t practice on Wednesday. 

Still, the Terps have numerous options. Matzelevich has looked lively for periods, leading a high press that is capable of stripping the ball and hitting teams on the break. The same goes for attacking midfielder Brayan Padilla, who provided an audacious first-time through ball to Matzelevich and can unlock teams with his eye for goal. 

“The connections need to keep coming better. The final ball, the final shot, it all needs to be a bit better,” Matzelevich said. “But there’s always room for improvement.” 

As the only player of Maryland’s current attacking corps to have seen extended time last year, Matzelevich now faces the difficult task of finding the back of the net while also helping a group of talented, yet inexperienced, players to grow into Maryland’s system. A key piece may be forward Justin Gielen. Capable of playing on the wing or as a true striker, the Maryland native has a good bond with Matzelevich in the final third. He figures to get the starting nod after Hervé’s injury. 

But projecting Maryland’s exact starting unit could be difficult after a crucial formation switch in the second half against Virginia. Chasing the game and struggling to cope with the dominant Daryl Dike, the Terps deployed an attacking 3-5-2. The setup put Matt DiRosa and Ben DiRosa in attacking wing back positions and incorporated defender Marques Antoine into an imposing back three. Although the Terps didn’t register a shot, the formation allowed them to dominate possession. 

“It’s a good system, especially if you want to build up,” Bergmann said. “So you have a lot of options.”  

A 3-5-2 gives Cirovski more of a chance to experiment with his lineup. While the midfield duo of Nick Richardson and Eli Crognale will likely hold their spots in the lineup regardless, Cirovski can turn to any of Padilla, Matzelevich, Brown, or Gielen to rotate between the three most attacking spots on the field. Given Maryland’s current lack of connectivity, rotation between the three spots could be beneficial. 

Whatever formation Maryland lines up in, they will be facing a hungry and aggressive UCLA team looking for its first win of the season. The Bruins dropped two narrow contests to Indiana and Northwestern, and will be defending home field, where Maryland hasn’t won since 2008. Regardless of formation or personnel, it’s paramount that Maryland gets on the board — and does so early. 

“It’s like a heavyweight fight, and we’ve got to be ready for the first punch,” Cirovski said. “And I’d like to be the one that gives the first punch rather than takes the first punch.”