University of Maryland soccer programs a beacon of success


“The general sense on this campus, from the president on down, is that soccer is important at this university,” Maryland men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski said. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
September 8, 2011

The buzz around University of Maryland athletics these days is affixed to the coaching changes with the privileged programs, to garish football uniforms and to budget shortfalls.

Amid the commotion, soccer continues to affirm its place among the school’s most successful outlets. With the women’s team beginning to replicate the men’s achievements — both are unbeaten, both have legitimate NCAA title aspirations — Maryland soccer has become a model of stability and excellence.

“The general sense on this campus, from the president on down, is that soccer is important at this university,” said men’s Coach Sasho Cirovski, a two-time national champion and six-time semifinalist through his first 17 seasons. “Recruits like coming to a place where soccer is important, and we’ve made soccer important.”

Maryland and ACC rival North Carolina are the only Division I schools, among more than 200 men’s programs and 300 women’s teams, featuring both programs in the top 10 of the coaches’ polls. The Tar Heels are No. 1 in each; Maryland’s men (4-0-0) are No. 2, the women (6-0-1) are No. 3. Combined, the Terrapins have outscored their opponents 36-3 with eight shutouts.

Cirovski’s squad will begin conference play Friday night at Ludwig Field against eighth-ranked Boston College (4-0-0). Brian Pensky’s team will complete its nonconference calendar Sunday at James Madison (3-1-1).

Soccer doesn’t attract football’s intense following on campus, but interest is growing. Last Friday, the second-largest crowd in Ludwig Field history (7,178) watched the men rout Stanford, 4-0. Through three home games, the Terrapins are averaging 4,895 — a substantial increase over last season’s final figure of 2,940, which was fifth best in the nation.

The women haven’t enjoyed the men’s history of success, and consequently, attract fewer than 1,000 spectators. Their ascent nationally, though, has helped raise Maryland’s soccer profile overall.

“We can’t be the men’s team, but I don’t worry about that,” said Pensky, who is in his seventh season after serving as Cirovski’s assistant for three years. “I just want to do well within the women’s game. We feel good about what we’re doing.”

University President Wallace D. Loh, who as a youth lived in soccer-mad Peru, is a frequent visitor to men’s and women’s matches, typically standing near the home bench. During last year’s NCAA men’s quarterfinal loss to Michigan, he pounded the signboards like a drum to rally enthusiasm.

Although the season is just a few weeks old, both teams are on course to return to the NCAA tournament. Cirovski, who earned his 300th career victory Sunday against Radford, hasn’t missed a beat despite three non-senior starters turning pro after last season: defender Ethan White (D.C. United), goalkeeper Zac MacMath (Philadelphia Union) and midfielder Matt Kassel (New York Red Bulls).

The latest rising star — and possible early entry into the pro ranks this winter — is sophomore forward Patrick Mullins (three goals). After serving in midfield last year, he is partnering upfront with senior Casey Townsend (four goals), who considered leaving school last offseason.

“We have high expectations, no matter who is on the team,” Mullins said. “We never look at it as: ‘How are going to get it done? How are we going to achieve our goals?’ They’re still the same goals.”

Starting goalkeeper Will Swaim graduated last spring, but with Cirovski in need of an experienced keeper, he returned for a final year of eligibility and regained the lead role he held as a freshman in 2007 and later lost to MacMath.

Cirovski’s biggest void was in midfield, but John Stertzer (three assists) has triggered the attack.

“Even with the number of players we lost,” Swaim said, “there wasn’t any reason to change our expectations. We never expect to have a rebuilding year.”

The women’s team, meantime, returned eight starters from a squad that went 18-2-3 last year and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time. The historic season was cut short with a penalty-kick loss to Georgetown in the second round. That setback, as well as a startling fifth-place prediction in the ACC preseason poll, fueled Maryland’s hunger entering this season.

“I don’t know if people have embraced that Maryland is pretty good,” Pensky said. “We’re in a very good league but still people think we’re just a bunch of kids that compete hard.”

“We all just wanted the season to come,” senior midfielder Lydia Hastings said. “It took forever. We were raring to go, and it has showed” — with shutouts in the first six matches before American scored in the second half of a 5-1 Maryland victory Wednesday. The Terrapins have outscored their opponents, 24-1.

Soccer’s accomplishments could help the teams dodge athletic department budget cuts, which are needed to address a $1.2 million operating deficit.

“As a female sport in this day and age, I feel somewhat comfortable,” Pensky said. “But we’re nervous because our whole department is nervous.”

Said Cirovski: “No one knows where it’s going to go, but I don’t see it affecting soccer in a negative way. Both programs have cemented their place into the upper hierarchy.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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