CHESTER, Pa. — Perhaps if the opposing coach were someone else, Sasho Cirovski would have reacted differently after his Maryland men’s soccer team lost to Notre Dame under controversial circumstances, 2-1, in the College Cup final Sunday at PPL Park.
The third-seeded Fighting Irish were a little better over the course of the raw afternoon and rewarded their beloved boss, Bobby Clark, with his first NCAA title after almost 30 years shaping American players.
Maryland had gone ahead on Patrick Mullins’s goal, but Leon Brown and Andrew O’Malley scored 20 minutes apart bridging halftime, and Notre Dame’s experienced defense sustained the lead until the confetti celebration.
“It hurts. I know how it feels on the other side,” said Cirovski, a two-time NCAA champion. “I told [Clark] after the game, ‘I am genuinely happy for you, Bobby. You are a special human being.’ ”
Both goals came off set pieces — a throw-in and a free kick — and the Terrapins’ inexperience and size inferiority showed as their 11-game winning streak was snapped.
But this was not a cut-and-dry result. The fifth-seeded Terrapins (17-4-5) were on the wrong side of two critical non-calls by Hilario Grajeda, MLS’s referee of the year. Cirovski, a volatile figure who has admired Clark since they first crossed paths in Scotland in 1980, was atypically restrained in the postgame news conference.
It was as if he did not want to overshadow Clark’s long-awaited moment.
“There are a lot of things out there that are difficult for the referees,” Cirovski said. Grajeda is “the best referee in this country. I have full faith in him. Once I review it on video, I am sure I might be hurting a little more.”
The first disputed play came on Mullins’s goal in the 35th minute.
Alex Shinsky deflected a corner kick on frame. Notre Dame’s Patrick Hodan blocked the ball with his left arm. On what should have been a penalty kick and red card, Grajeda either did not see Hodan’s action or wanted to allow the sequence to play out.
Mullins knocked the ball down with his hand — another ignored violation — and fired into the left side for his nation’s-best 19th goal of the year.
Given the choice, the Terps would have preferred Hodan’s dismissal for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and a penalty kick. (Mullins was 9 for 9 on PKs this year.)
“That was definitely a crazy play,” Mullins said. “A lot of things happened in a short period of time. . . . I am sure [Grajeda] will look back on that play, too, because it was a lot of plays that players and refs [probably] want to take back.”
Mullins also admitted fault in handling the ball. “That’s not who I am,” he said, fighting back tears. “I will regret that one for the rest of my life.”
Said Cirovski: “It affected him a lot after that moment. His conscience was hurt.”
Of his arm save, Hodan said: “It wasn’t anything deliberate; it was more of a reaction. It was closer to the shoulder, I’d like to say. They ended up scoring anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a deal.”
It was, though, because Notre Dame remained at full strength.
Fortunate to avoid a red card, the Irish (17-1-6) drew even in the 40th minute.
Nick Besler, whose brother, Matt, won an MLS Cup title with Sporting Kansas City last weekend, flicked Luke Mishu’s long throw-in. Brown, who had entered in the 10th minute for Vince Cicciarelli (broken collarbone), beat slipping defender Chris Odoi-Atsem and pushed an angled shot past Zack Steffen.
The Irish claimed the lead 15 minutes into the second half. Harrison Shipp served a free kick to the six-yard box. O’Malley beat Shinsky to the header and Steffen to the right corner. “It would have been tough for me to screw it up,” O’Malley said.
In the 67th minute, Maryland howled for a penalty kick when Notre Dame’s Connor Klekota made contact with his right hand on a corner kick. Grajeda’s whistle remained silent.
The Terrapins did not seriously threaten Patrick Wall in the closing stages, and when the final seconds ticked away, Cirovski embraced his distinguished counterpart.
“He was disappointed but very gracious,” Clark said. “I think he was partially happy it was me and no one else.”