Struggles under pressure: a tactical review of Maryland soccer’s loss against Northwestern

It all started very suddenly for Maryland men’s soccer. The visiting Northwestern Wildcats took the opening kick off and sent the ball downfield into the College Park night. The Wildcats quickly won a corner and pinned Maryland back into its own 18-yard box. 

The aggressive sequence served as a statement of intent from a Northwestern squad that played a headstrong 90 minutes at Ludwig Field. Where many teams falter and defend, the Wildcats held their lines with aplomb and looked to counter attack. And while the Terps didn’t produce their best, Sasho Cirovski’s side was tactically outclassed in a 3-1 home loss. 

A statement of intent 

Northwestern started the game in a way unlike many opponents do at Maryland — an offensive onslaught. 

The early corner was a precursor to a very attack-heavy and clinical evening from the Wildcats. Realizing the Terps would look to dominate possession in front of the home crowd, Northwestern gladly sat back and soaked up pressure before hitting quickly on the counter attack. Indeed, their first goal was a silky move down the wing: 

While Maryland’s back line should do better at the near post, the Wildcats worked the Maryland defense expertly. Matt Moderwell draws Ben Di Rosa out towards the byline, creating a one-on-one matchup down the left flank. He then needs only half a yard of space to fire a well-hit cross across the face of goal. Bardia Kimiavi then times his back-post run to perfection, catching Matt Di Rosa off guard. 

“Northwestern played very direct,” Cirovski said. “I thought both of their wide players were very effective today.” 

Without the ball, Northwestern was relentless. After a dominant performance from the No. 10 role against Akron, Brayan Padilla has been slowly phased out of games. The Wildcats had a defender constantly marking the crafty sophomore, limiting one of Maryland’s best outlets into the final third. 

With that outlet gone, Maryland looked to play down the wings. But the full backs lacked their usual connectivity in the final third, limiting goal scoring opportunities.

Although Northwestern played a defensive 90 minutes, it refused to wilt under Maryland’s pressure. Maryland would eventually adjust, but the damage was mostly done.

Kovacic’s career night 

There were a few bright spots for the Terps on Friday night. Nick Richardson was his usual effective self while breaking up play form the No. 6 role, Johannes Bergmann looked typically composed at the back, and Padilla scored a lovely goal to give Maryland hope in the second half. 

However, Maryland’s standout was Slovenian freshman David Kovacic. With captain Eli Crognale too sore to start, Cirovski threw Kovacic into the fold — and he repaid the manager’s faith with an excellent showing in the center of the pitch. 

After getting on the board, Northwestern began to pack the midfield. It switched from an attacking 4-3-3 formation to a very cagey 4-5-1. This offset the midfield overload Maryland hoped to create, and had the Terps constantly playing three against three in the middle third of the pitch. Furthermore, it limited both time and space on the ball for all three midfielders. 

Despite the many obstacles, Kovacic looked incredibly composed. Although he’s just a freshman, Kovacic made 55 appearances professionally in Slovenia. That showed in on-field confidence unique for a first-year student-athlete. 

On Friday, it was vital for someone to take control of the ball and move it quickly. Crognale is the usual calming presence in the middle of the park, but Kovacic slid into that role comfortably. 

There were few positives to take from Maryland’s midfield’s showing on Friday, but Kovacic’s emergence as a solid option should give Cirovski more freedom to experiment with lineups in the future. 

Mistakes cost Maryland

In some senses, Maryland’s defensive unit is as effective as the back four from last year’s national championship-winning squad. Bergmann still shepherds the rest of the line well, while Brett St. Martin has stepped expertly into a full-time role. Both Di Rosas have established themselves as good one-on-one defenders, and have the requisite speed to make up for mistakes at the back. 

Still, the Terps have made too many errors through the season’s first six games and yielded some very preventable goals as a result. Northwestern’s first on Friday night shouldn’t have made it past the near post, but was forgivable due to the quality of the move. 

The Wildcats’ other two, however, were incredibly preventable. Maryland has had problems at the goalie position, as Niklas Neumann and Russell Shealy have rotated every game. Neumann looked to have the role nailed down before exiting against Villanova with a nasty head gash. Shealy didn’t do much to make the spot his own Friday night, making two poor mistakes. 

“In all of our losses so far, we gifted some goals,” Cirovski said. “We have to stop being so generous.” 

On the first, he simply misjudged a cross, allowing a speculative ball to loop over his head and into the net.

The second was more of a breakdown as a whole, but there should be more of an outlet of communication between Richardson and Shealy with an opposing attacker looming.

“[There was] a little miscommunication today. We weren’t as connected as we wanted to be,” Di Rosa said. “It happens, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

It was a frustrating home showing for Maryland. The Terps dominated possession but created little, while Northwestern consistently capitalized where the home side couldn’t. A perfect storm of mistakes and tactical nuance from Northwestern proved to be the end of Maryland’s home winning streak — but the Terps do have some positives to draw from an otherwise underwhelming showing. 

“Full credit to Northwestern tonight,” coach Sasho Cirovski. “They came here and put in a great shift. They played a style that was very effective.”