Maryland Men's Soccer Turns Season Around, Plays for NCAA Championship

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

FRISCO, Tex., Dec. 13 -- The bus ride home from Clemson, S.C., on that Saturday morning in early October took more than eight hours. For the Maryland soccer players who the previous night had conceded the most goals in eight years and endured Coach Sasho Cirovski's postgame rage, it felt like 80 hours.

"It was terrible," senior midfielder Graham Zusi recalled with a laugh Saturday. "The longest trip ever."

The Terrapins (22-3) can chuckle about it now, because they find themselves in the NCAA championship game Sunday afternoon against surprising North Carolina (15-7-1) here in suburban Dallas. But after that 5-3 loss to Clemson, a game in which they surrendered a late lead by yielding three goals in 1 minute 23 seconds, the Terrapins found themselves at the crossroads of an unraveling season.

"It was a humbling experience and brought the humility back to the way we play," Cirovski said. "We had to remind ourselves of what we wanted to accomplish this year. The words after that game were, 'If we can make this the final lesson, then this game will serve its purpose.' And it has."

The second-seeded Terrapins have not lost since, a 15-game winning streak unmatched in the program's previous 62 seasons. The six goals allowed during this perfect stretch have come in six different games and, in seven Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournament matches, they have permitted just one goal.

The defensive renaissance has been the result of not only tighter play by the four backs -- seniors A.J. Delagarza (Lackey High) and Rich Costanzo, junior Omar Gonzalez and sophomore Rodney Wallace (Bullis) -- but also because of dominant ball possession and pressure all over the field.

The Terrapins have had enormous advantages in combined shots (36-8) and corner kicks (22-2) the past two matches, leaving the backline to suppress sporadic challenges and freshman goalkeeper Zac MacMath to make a few routine saves.

Ten weeks ago, though, the situation was drastically different. The problems began with a 4-2 loss at home to top-ranked Wake Forest on Sept. 26, but a midweek victory over Binghamton temporarily eased their concerns and perhaps masked deeper issues. "The players dismissed our mistakes to Wake's ability," Cirovski said.

Maryland's issues manifested themselves into the late-game breakdown at Clemson.

"Our players assumed, because of some of the abilities of the players, the job would just get done," Cirovski said. "There was a little bit of false confidence maybe."

After the game, Cirovski initiated a long discussion in the locker room at Riggs Field. Another talk took place in the back of the bus the next morning.

"We just asked ourselves what we wanted out of the season, if we wanted it to be a season where we just had fun and didn't have the success we've had, or did we want to lock it down and do what we're capable of?" said Zusi, who scored in overtime of Maryland's 1-0 semifinal victory over St. John's on Friday night. "It was a long bus ride, and glad it's something we didn't have to do again."

By the next day, "We practiced a lot harder and the intensity rose with every single person," Delagarza said. The seniors "pushed people to the limits."

Cirovski did not make any drastic changes; he simply emphasized details that his team was overlooking, such as weak-side defensive balance and interaction between the defenders.

The defensive improvement has been critical because, despite the attack's superior possession and statistical supremacy, Maryland has not scored more than two goals in a game in its past 11 outings.

MacMath, who split time with sophomore Will Swaim early in the season, has been in goal for 18 consecutive victories since a 1-0 loss to California in the second game of the year. Gonzalez and Wallace have each scored in the NCAA tournament, and defensive midfielders Matt Kassel, a freshman, and senior Mike Marchiano have shared the responsibility of disrupting opposing playmakers.

Their winning streak notwithstanding, the Terrapins say they won't take too much comfort from their two victories this season over the 13th-seeded Tar Heels, who have experienced a similar, yet more rapid, metamorphosis after losing five straight preceding the NCAA tournament.

The last time Maryland trailed in a game? The regular season finale against North Carolina.

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