UCLA 2, Maryland 1
A Maryland men's soccer team without a senior had ridden three exceptional second-half performances into the NCAA College Cup semifinals, demonstrating a resiliency and sense of the occasion that belied its youth and dearth of playoff experience. In a cruel twist today at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, those qualities failed the Terrapins at two crucial moments, and their impressive season ended with a 2-1 loss to UCLA.
Once again, a Maryland team that had scored each one of its NCAA tournament goals in the second half emerged from the intermission rejuvenated and refocused. But it was not enough before 7,025 fans on the Southern Methodist University campus as an unsympathetic referee, an ejection to Coach Sasho Cirovski and a physical and opportunistic opponent appeared to knock the top-ranked Terrapins (20-5) off balance.
The Bruins earned a place in Sunday's final against Stanford, which defeated Creighton, 2-1, on Chad Marshall's overtime goal. The wounded Terrapins vowed to return to this stage next year.
Sixth-ranked UCLA (17-3-3) took the lead in the 75th minute on Matt Taylor's goal, seconds after an apparent foul on Maryland sophomore forward Domenic Mediate in the Bruins' penalty area went uncalled. The Terrapins pressed for the equalizer and junior midfielder Sumed Ibrahim found it, scoring on a blazing left-footed shot in the 81st minute.
Then Maryland's focus failed again. Just over a minute after Sumed's goal, the Terrapins' defense broke down and goalkeeper Noah Palmer was left alone to defend UCLA's Cliff McKinley. He got a piece of both the forward and the ball, and junior midfielder Adolfo Gregorio stroked home the penalty kick.
"We felt like we took over the game," Cirovski said. "We felt like we were pushing and we were going to have one of our second halves where we come out with the goal that wins it. Unfortunately the ball didn't bounce our way and the dice didn't roll the right way for us. That's life. We'll move on. We've already discussed it and we'll grow."
Coaches and players are forbidden by the NCAA to discuss officiating, but many of the bounces and rolls Cirovski referred to came from referee Bob Martinez.
The referee allowed UCLA to play physically against Maryland and let quite a bit go, especially McKinley's 58th-minute kick to the groin of Maryland sophomore defender Clarence Goodson. Instead of sitting in the locker room with a red card, McKinley was involved in the winning goal. Cirovski boiled over after Gregorio's penalty kick and was ejected for "foul and abusive language."
Several Maryland players continued the protest, and goalkeeper Noah Palmer followed the officials across the field at the final whistle. But had the Terrapins kept their composure following the apparent foul on Mediate and after Sumed's goal, the officiating might not have been an issue.
McKinley did not apologize for the Bruins' physical play.
"It was really physical out there," he said. "I'm not sure how much we talked about it before, but being physical is one of my strong suits. I love getting in there and doing a lot of the dirty work. It gets me in the game."
Unable to discuss specifics, Cirovski praised UCLA for making the most of its chances and lauded his team's attitude and style of play.
"Our motto is to play like champions and one day I believe we will be champions," he said. "We have a good approach. We play the right way. We play with passion. We play with emotion and we play the game the way it should be played."
Maryland was on its heels for much of the first half but still managed to create several good chances against the flow of play, the best of which was a sharp, 19th-minute header from junior forward Nino Marcantonio that forced an excellent reaction save from UCLA's Zach Wells.
The second half belonged to the Terrapins, who won just about every ball in midfield and did a better job controlling the Bruins on the flanks. Mediate was a threat on the left but leading scorer Abe Thompson struggled against a mobile, athletic defense, leaving Maryland lacking some punch up front when it mattered most.
"We displayed ourselves on this occasion in a very good way," Cirovski said. "We played a great opponent and as I said, we're going to get better. . . . We'll be playing two more days next year."