Maryland Won a National Championship Last Season, but Its Four Back Line Starters All Moved On to the Professional Ranks
Friday, September 4, 2009
Two weeks ago, Sasho Cirovski, the University of Maryland men's soccer coach, attended an MLS match at RFK Stadium and was quickly reminded of both the Terrapins' glory last year and the challenges that await this fall.
When the game began, three-quarters of Maryland's back line from the 2008 NCAA championship squad was on the field: Rodney Wallace of D.C. United and A.J. DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy.
DeLaGarza spent four years in College Park while Wallace and Gonzalez exited early to pursue pro careers. Combined with outgoing senior Rich Costanzo joining the second-division Minnesota Thunder, Cirovski had to start from scratch with his defense this season.
The novice back line will be tested right away as the Terrapins, No. 8 in Soccer America magazine's preseason rankings, face No. 9 UCLA on Friday at 8 p.m. in front of potentially the biggest home crowd at Ludwig Field, which has been expanded by 500 to accommodate 7,000 spectators. Maryland also will host seventh-ranked Cal on Sunday evening.
Astute observers will keep a close eye on Maryland's rebuilt defense.
"We feel we can compete with anybody, anytime, any year," Cirovski said. However, "We do recognize the significant losses from last year's squad. We know we are going to have some growing pains and we'll have some early weaknesses exposed."
The Terrapins, who begin the season with a program-record 16-game winning streak, return both starting forwards, three experienced midfielders and one of the nation's top goalkeepers. But the back line is likely to include two freshmen, a sophomore who played forward last year and a fifth-year senior who has overcome two serious knee injuries.
The leader of the group is 6-foot-2 central back Kevin Tangney, who sat out in 2006 and '07 and made 18 appearances and one start last year. Freshman Ethan White, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduate from D.C. United's youth academy, is expected to join Tangney in the middle, with sophomore Alex Lee on the right side and freshman Taylor Kemp on the left.
Senior Kwame Darko (two career starts) and freshman London Woodberry are options as well.
Because of the inexperience, the Terrapins will turn to Tangney and second-year goalie Zac MacMath, the nation's leader in goals-against average last season, for direction. MacMath is an alternate on the U.S. Under-20 World Cup squad that will compete in Egypt this fall and won't be summoned unless one of the three goalies selected is injured.
"One of my main roles is to be the communicator back there and make sure everyone is on the same page, especially with young guys on my left and on my right," Tangney said. "It's a big challenge losing all those guys from last year. It's really just a matter of getting comfortable, knowing each other's tendencies and personalities."
In addition to Wallace and Gonzalez leaving early, junior midfielder Jeremy Hall turned pro after last season and, like those two defenders, was chosen in the first round of the MLS draft (by the New York Red Bulls). Hall was the Terrapins' offensive leader with 14 goals, a team high, and seven assists (tied for second).
"I have to always plan for this year and do everything we can to be successful because I don't know what the team is going to look like in the spring," said Cirovski, who, during his 17 seasons, has had numerous stars serve fewer than four years. "We have a lot of talented young guys who, because we are on a pretty good stage and had success with players going on, I am sure they will be recruited" by MLS or foreign clubs.
The Terrapins will also have to adjust without Graham Zusi, an attacking midfielder who, as a senior last year, scored the only goals in 1-0 victories over St. John's and North Carolina at the final four in Frisco, Tex.
Besides MacMath, Maryland's strengths lie on the front line with sophomore Casey Townsend (11 goals, four assists in 2008) and junior Jason Herrick (four, four), and with a midfield that includes senior Doug Rodkey (nine assists), sophomore Matt Kassel (seven) and senior Drew Yates, the top reserve a year ago.
"It's a new team and we are not really comparing ourselves to last year," Herrick said. "We are going to try to make our own identity."