By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008
Before Sasho Cirovski was hired to coach the Maryland men's soccer team in 1993, home games were played in the middle of the day and the few dozen spectators watched from a small set of bleachers and embankments. The scoreboard told you the goal total, the time and little else.
The field was not suited for the cooling autumn weather and turned brown -- a drab hint that another second-rate season was drawing to a close.
In a 23-year span before Cirovski's arrival, the Terrapins went to the NCAA tournament five times, never winning a game. Top local prospects from one of the richest youth soccer areas in the country committed to Virginia and other fully funded programs.
"I remember coming to games as a teenager, and there wasn't any home-field atmosphere," said Howard County native Russell Payne, a goalkeeper in Cirovski's first four years and now a Maryland assistant coach. "I'd go to see the games against Virginia and Howard, and I was like, 'Everyone is rooting for the other team.' People didn't think much of Maryland. Things have changed."
In so many ways.
The Terrapins' semifinal tonight against St. John's in suburban Dallas marks their fifth appearance in seven years in the College Cup, as the NCAA semifinals and final are known. They boast the nation's longest winning streak (14), the most victories (21) in any of the program's 63 seasons, the best home attendance mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a roster with several pro prospects.
"I had hoped that we would reach this level, but once you get there, you recognize how special it is because of how hard it is to maintain that level of excellence," said Cirovski, 46, who has a 234-102-20 record and 14 NCAA tournament appearances in 16 seasons.
Maryland's victory total this year is more than the combined wins in the three seasons before Cirovski's arrival (20).
"Sasho was the great hope for us," said Athletic Director Debbie Yow, who came to Maryland a year after Cirovski. "He sold Maryland well because he believed in the place."
In Cirovski's first season, however, the Terrapins had a 3-14-1 record, their worst in 13 years. By the next fall, with the maximum number of scholarships available and the arrival of local talent, they made the first of four consecutive trips to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The breakthrough came in 1998 with the team's first final four berth in 29 years. Maryland lost in the semifinals in 2002, '03 and '04 as well, but the next fall won its first national title since 1968.
During Cirovski's tenure, about 30 Terrapins have gone to the pros, including Glasgow Rangers midfielder Maurice Edu and MLS scoring ace Taylor Twellman. Many have left school early, but with an annual addition of high school all-Americans, Maryland has endured. "It's a source of pride because you win with juniors and seniors, and a lot of years we haven't had a lot of them," said Cirovski, who might lose juniors Omar Gonzalez and Jeremy Hall this offseason.
Boosting Maryland's attractiveness were improvements to multipurpose Ludwig Field: lights, a modern scoreboard, permanent seats on one side, raised student seating a few yards behind the endlines and signboards framing the field. One obstacle to additional seating was a pole vault pit used by the track and field team. Cirovski raised $46,000 to have it rebuilt in a nearby location.
An inviting setting and winning program have boosted average attendance to more than 2,000 for five consecutive years and drawn crowds of 6,000-plus six times, including a record 6,500 on Sept. 26 for the Wake Forest game.
Though his success and ambition would seem to put him on course for a job in MLS or with one of the younger-age national teams, "I have created such a good situation here, I am very happy," said Cirovski, who signed a two-year contract extension last summer. "It would have to be the perfect opportunity. I am a hands-on person, and I would want to have a lot of control and power. A lot of people probably wouldn't want to give me that."
Cirovski's influence carries beyond College Park. As chairman of the Division I men's coaches' committee for five years, he initiated a regular season TV package on Fox Soccer Channel and fought proposals that would have limited spring sessions. His next objectives are lengthening the regular season by one week on each end, getting more NCAA tournament games televised, increasing the scholarship limit and moving the College Cup to late December so fans have more time to make travel plans.
"College basketball is defined by March Madness," he said. "I want to create some sort of Fall Fever."
Cirovski's passion has also caused problems. He is loud and animated on the sideline, and at his worst, he received a red card for abusive language during the second half of a 2002 semifinal loss to UCLA in Dallas.
Cirovski called it "a turning point for me. It depicted me as someone I am not. I am a very intense, high-energy guy, but I realize for all the good things you do, one act of stupidity sometimes sheds a big light on who you are not."
Said Yow: "He is intense, and he is well aware that sometimes it's over the top. He knows he needs to rein it in, but not too much. It works for him."
Cirovski has not been ejected since, but he was reprimanded and fined $300 by the NCAA last year for publicly criticizing the officiating crew after a season-ending overtime loss to Bradley.
This week, as he prepared to return to Texas for another College Cup, he was reminded of the '02 incident.
"It's Dallas, so my first goal is not to get a red card," Cirovski said, laughing. "And then my second goal is to win a championship."