Maryland soccer feels it’s back where it belongs: in the College Cup

The Maryland men’s soccer team held back on its celebration upon reaching its first College Cup since 2008 with a 3-1 victory over Louisville on Saturday. But, with their national semifinal against Georgetown looming on Friday in Hoover, Ala., there is the sense among the Terrapins that they are back where they belong.

“The preparation for this moment began literally days after we lost in last year’s round of 16,” Coach Sasho Cirovski said Tuesday. “This was a hungry, committed returning group, and these two guys were two of the main figures that led to the transformation of a culture, and really a determined culture to get us back to the college cup.

“Always an empty feeling if we’re not playing the final weekend. To be back where we belong is a great source of pride, but we’re also not content with being there. It’s not the end game for our program.”

Instead, these Terps are hunting for their first national title since beating North Carolina in in 2008. The attention immediately shifted to the Hoyas after downing Louisville, the team that ousted Maryland at Ludwig Field last season.

Upstart Georgetown, meanwhile, reached its first College Cup after beating San Diego, 3-1, extending the program’s greatest season ever and giving Friday’s matchup an intriguing subplot, given that Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson has refused to schedule Georgetown in any sport until the Hoyas agree to play the Terrapins in men’s basketball.

“It feels great, but we’re focused on the game on Friday with the hope that we can continue playing on Sunday,” Cirovski said. “We’ve worked hard to make ourselves the biggest bulls-eye in college soccer. I don’t mind putting pressure on our team and our players. We think we’re diamond tough, hardest substance known to man. We go play in tough environments, we set our standards extremely high. When you get into tough games, you see the best of Maryland soccer.”

The best came out in the second half against the Cardinals, when the Terps locked down a 2-1 lead with impenetrable back-line defense and stamped it on a 68th-minute goal by Patrick Mullins, a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s highest individual award.

Though Mullins leads Maryland with 16 goals, including seven game-winners, crucial production has emerged from across the board, propelling the Terps to a 16-game unbeaten streak to start the season and a six-game winning streak since losing to Wake Forest on Nov. 1.

“It’s always a good problem to have, with players who can step off the bench, step on the field and raise the level,” senior John Stertzer said. “Being able to see a lot of the young guys work hard for those minutes and be able to shine is a great feeling. Our depth is one of our greatest assets. It’s been a big part of why we’ve gone this far this year. It’s definitely been a strength of ours.”

Said Cirovski: “These guys have done a fantastic job. We find different ways to win games, sometimes we take early leads, sometimes we come back late. Sometimes we meet all the demands of the game. The story of this year has been the incredible leadership of our three captains but the larger leadership group that we have, but also the humility of our team, the ability for key players to step in.”

Perhaps such success was foretold from the spring, when Maryland went undefeated during its preseason. The last time Maryland was unbeaten in the spring? In 2008, when they won the national championship.

“We’re still hunting after our last goal,” Cirovski said. “It should be celebrated what these young men have done, averaging close to three goals a game which is pretty ridiculous. We’ve played some beautiful soccer, but those are some of the fun things along the way. We know what’s ahead of us and what we want to get done this weekend.”

NOTE: Cirovski’s attention is obviously focused on Friday’s matchup, but he has bigger plans for the future.

“Still want to build the soccer stadium on this campus,” Cirovski said, predicting that its erection will come within five years. “That’s my number one goal. My number one legacy is to build a beautiful soccer-specific stadium on this campus that will honor the past and ensure the future and offer a place for all of our great fans to call their own.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.

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Alex Prewitt · December 4, 2012