Maryland soccer falls to clinical Wake Forest in second round of NCAA Tournament

Kyle Holcomb couldn’t quite believe how much space he had. Maryland men’s soccer had thrown 8 of its 11 players up front in a desperate attempt to claw back from a 2-0 deficit. Thus, when Holcomb, already with an assist to his name, took off down the pitch, begging for the ball from his teammate, the end seemed inevitable. 

The pass from Tater Rennhack was perfect. Holcomb needed one touch before putting a cool side-footed finish past Maryland goalie Niklas Neumann. His counter attack goal in the 90th minute sealed what was largely a foregone conclusion. Maryland stuck with Wake Forest in all but the score line, competing for every ball and crafting some chances. 

Yet crippled by injuries and clearly fatigued from a Thursday night game, the Terps couldn’t keep up with the livelier and clinical Demon Deacons — falling 3-0 and crashing out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round. 

“The third goal notwithstanding, we were right in it,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We continued to fight and scrap and stay in the game… as a coach you can’t ask for anything more.”

After playing a competitive 90 minutes against Iona, Sunday evening always projected to be a difficult matchup for Maryland. For the most part, the Terps stayed in the game. While Wake Forest often executed its signature style of sweeping, switching soccer, the Terps put in a shift defensively. Ultimately, it was a couple of fortunate bounces, as well as clinical finishing from Wake Forest, that sent the Terps home early.

Maryland had to withstand some early pressure, as Wake Forest pushed up relentlessly. The Deacons’ danger man, Bruno Lapa, was a constant threat hovering between the lines. On multiple occasions in the opening exchanges, he burst towards the box and had an attempt on goal. He couldn’t find the back of the net, though, with a combination of poor finishing and tight Maryland defense preventing a clear look. 

“It was important for us to take some of their rhythm away in changing the point of attack and the overloads,” Cirovski said. “We were just a step slow.”

After withstanding some early pressure, the Terps got on the ball more regularly. Cirovski stuck with the same lineup that beat Iona 4-0 last Thursday, deploying Eli Crognale in the No. 8. Maryland looked to run everything though Crognale, utilizing him as the focal point of their flowing attack. For passages, it worked effectively, as the Terps moved quickly in transition. But Wake Forest closed down effectively in the back.

The game became a back-and-forth contest, with both sides pushing hard for an opening goal. Wake Forest looked the more likely of the two to score from open play. In the 23rd minute, Kyle Holcomb skewed a wide-open opportunity right in front of the net. It was a golden chance to open the scoring. 

Three minutes later, Lapa made up for it. After a shot from distance deflected off numerous players, the ball fell perfectly to the midfielder’s right foot. With Niklas Neumann wrong-footed, Lapa had half of an open net to aim for. He did so successfully, sending the ball into the net and putting the Deacons up 1-0. 

“We had those, they didn’t pop our way,” Cirovski said.

Maryland pushed for the rest of the half, looking to create changes. Luke Brown played as a lone striker, and looked lively off the bench. In the 31st minute, he almost provided a moment of magic to get the Terps back in it. But his 20-yard volley whacked off the top of the bar and out of bounds. 

It was the Terps’ best chance in an otherwise underwhelming first half. Although they only trailed 1-0, Wake Forest should have added two or three more.

Maryland needed a jolt of energy for the second half. For the opening few minutes of the period, they played with it. Wake Forest was forced back into its own area as the Terps pushed up. The attacking trio of Brown, Justin Gielen, and Eric Matzelevich hit on the break and looked dangerous. Brown lashed a shot wide. Crognale had one blocked. A goal seemed imminent. 

But in the 50th minute, Maryland wasn’t the team celebrating. Holcomb slid a pass through to a surging Machop Chol, who lashed a shot past Neumann for a 2-0 Deacons lead. Chol turned away jubilantly, well aware of the magnitude of his goal.

Less than 30 seconds later, Malcolm Johnston had an identical chance for the Terps. Crognale fed him through on goal, with a golden chance to draw one back. But where Chol succeeded, Johnston failed. He rushed his right-footed shot, sending it straight at the chest of Andrew Pannenberg and away from danger.  

Maryland’s hopes burned out with Johnston’s cannoned shot. The Terps pushed for the rest of the half but couldn’t break down a sturdy Wake Forest back line. Cirovksi tinkered with his lineup, trying to find the right combination to create something. However, none would suffice. 

“We just put our faith on every single player that was on the field,” Crognale said. “And tried to encourage them no matter what.”

Further complicating prospects were a series of injuries for the Terps. Right back Ben Di Rosa, struggling with a knock since Thursday, exited clutching his bandaged shoulder. First choice center back Brett St. Martin also left after suffering a broken nose against Iona. Thus, when it came time for the Terps to launch all of their options forward, they were very thin at the back — and Holcomb capitalized. 

After all the effort Maryland had put in dealing with injuries, adjusting lineups, and pushing for another deep run, Holcomb’s tap in seemed like a cruel end. Still, the makeshift Terps got further than they perhaps should have — a testament to the grit of the 2019 squad.

“Obviously I don’t like losing any game. But I don’t think we lost tonight,” Cirovski said. “We just didn’t advance.”