Staying patient: a tactical review of Maryland soccer’s win over Villanova

In modern soccer, very few teams like Villanova exist. Today’s game is obsessed with the attacking, high-intensity, high-pressing style implemented by some of the game’s top managers. The old fashioned 4-4-2 formation — an ultra-defensive set up — is out of style. Instead, teams rely on the 4-3-3, an attacking deployment designed for speed that pushes wingers high up the pitch. 

The Wildcats are a throwback, and Maryland men’s soccer learned that the hard way for most of their meeting Monday night. The Terps were often frustrated in the first half, unable to control any sustained periods of possession.

But they shook off the rust after the break and attacked relentlessly — finally finding the break through in the 76th minute. It wasn’t the prettiest 1-0 victory, but Maryland was able to slowly break down a team designed to frustrate. 

“I think [Villanova] came out with a very good game plan in the first half,” midfielder Nick Richardson said. “They were playing very direct, something that we really haven’t seen all year.” 

Villanova gave Maryland a difficult first half, disrupting play for a slightly lethargic looking Terps squad. But as the visitors started to tire out in the second 45, Maryland continuously attacked — and was rewarded with a sublime winning goal from Ben Di Rosa. 

A frustrating first half 

Villanova spent most of the first half sending long passes to Maryland’s center backs and then crashing on the second ball — pinning Maryland back in defensive transition. The strategy also meant Maryland’s center midfielders had to uncharacteristically drop back and compete for the ball instead of waiting to receive a pass.

This gave Richardson little opportunity to create from the No. 6 role, stifling Maryland’s main playmaker in the middle of the pitch. 

“I felt like I was holding a lot more today than I was in Akron,” Richardson said. “There was a lot of second balls today.” 

When Maryland got on the ball, they looked a bit sloppy. Coming off a high intensity, free-flowing match against Akron, the Terps had little recovery time before facing Villanova’s physical style. 

And their fatigue showed in the opening exchanges through their passing and first touches on the ball.

Without its usual energy, Maryland failed to create too many chances in the first half. The closest it came was a sliced effort from Mike Heitzmann that found the side-netting — a strike that didn’t seem to concern goalie Carson Wiliams. 

“We didn’t come out as sharp as we wanted to be,” Di Rosa said. “It’s kind of tough to have a quick turn around… but we know there’s no excuses.” 

Despite looking rusty, the Terps enjoyed the return of attacking midfielder Luke Brown. Sidelined for two games after picking up a knock against Virginia, the No. 10 proved to be a calming presence in the final 20 minutes of the first half. He looked notably more lively than his Maryland teammates, with his first touch sharper and his creative instinct brighter. 

“Luke came in and really helped us today,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “He put his foot on the ball and you could see he was a little fresher.” 

An attacking second 

The second half was a more open affair. With Brown’s return, as well as the fresh legs of Justin Gielen and David Kovacic, the Terps were able to keep the intensity up while Villanova legs faltered. Cirovski also pushed full backs Matt Di Rosa and Ben Di Rosa up the wings, urging them to get more involved in the attack. 

“We needed to make sure we start getting in behind them a little bit,” Cirovski said. “We definitely wanted to get a little more overload.”

With the full backs playing so high, Maryland’s front three piled into the box awaiting deliveries in the middle. And the fatigued Wildcats failed to clear their lines — allowing Maryland to apply pressure in the box. 

This also freed up space for Brayan Padilla in the No. 10 role. Stifled for most of the game by Villanova’s physical midfield, the sophomore began to find pockets of space in between the two defensive lines. His expanded room to operate yielded a Maryland penalty kick. 

Although Maryland couldn’t covert on the ensuing attempt, it was a sign of things to come. As the game wore on, Villanova was pushed deeper into its own half. By the time Maryland notched a goal — in the 76th minute — full back Ben Di Rosa was playing as a right winger. Fortunately for the Terps, he delivered on his one chance. 

Maryland has shown a knack for grinding out tough 1-0 wins for its first three victories of the season. Opponents often come to Ludwig Field looking to defend and make life as uncomfortable for the Terps as possible, and for 75 minutes, Villanova did just that. However, in the 76th minute, Maryland found yet another big moment to knock off a fiercely physical opponent. 

“It’s a very satisfying result,” Cirovski said, “getting a shutout and getting a victory after not converting a penalty kick.”