For most of the top college soccer programs in the country, last month's workouts consisted of daily sessions on campus and a couple of low-key exhibitions. For the Maryland Terrapins, however, it was hardly a routine preseason.
The Terrapins spent 11 days in the birthplace of modern-day soccer, Britain. They played several games against pro reserve squads; attended Manchester United's home opener at revered Old Trafford stadium; met United's American goalkeeper, Tim Howard; and toured Glasgow and Edinburgh.
"It was a great trip," Terrapins Coach Sasho Cirovski said. "The biggest thing was being able to be around each other 24 hours a day, working together, understanding each other and building a sense of camaraderie. . . . Living, eating, breathing soccer for almost two weeks is a priceless experience."
The Terrapins are hoping that their overseas experience will carry over to the season, which begins today against Long Island and continues Sunday against Marshall at the Virginia Classic in Charlottesville. They will make their home debut at Ludwig Field next Friday against St. John's, which beat them in the semifinals last year.
Expectations are soaring again for Maryland, which has advanced to the NCAA final four three of the previous five seasons but has failed to win a national championship in that time. It's an accomplishment that has eluded the program since 1968. The Terrapins, who return six starters, are listed No. 15 by Soccer America magazine, the most respected of the national rankings, but much higher by other groups.
Besides providing an early bonding experience, the trip to Britain gave Maryland some valuable playing opportunities. Under NCAA rules, teams are permitted to play 20 games, including exhibitions, during the fall. But matches played overseas are exempt, so instead of scheduling one or two scrimmages against other college opponents, the Terrapins had the opportunity to play five competitive matches (they went 3-2).
Cirovski said the trip cost about $60,000, which was raised by the program's boosters and sponsors as well as the players. The team stayed in university dorms and trained at local fields. Among the highlights was getting a tour of Old Trafford and watching Manchester United defeat Norwich, 2-1, on Aug. 21.
To return to the final four, the Terrapins will have to fill voids left by 2003 seniors Sumed Ibrahim, Nino Marcantonio, Seth Stammler, Scott Buete and A.J. Herrera, and junior Clarence Goodson, who left school to sign with MLS. Maryland's strengths are defenders Kenney Bertz and Chris Lancos, who have moved from outside slots to central roles in place of Stammler and Goodson; goalkeeper Noah Palmer; and a trio of proven scorers: Domenic Mediate, Jason Garey and Abe Thompson. A talented freshman class includes Keith Vereb, the All-Met player of the year at DeMatha last fall.
Cirovski is expecting big production from Thompson, a senior from Fairfax Station who was beset with injuries last year. Thompson lost 14 pounds since the end of last season. "He's lean and playing really well," Cirovski said. "We had a heart-to-heart talk last spring and talked about him getting into shape after the injuries. He had lost some of that explosiveness that had made him such a dangerous player, but now he's got [the speed] back."
Soccer Notes: The Terps were picked to finish fourth in the ACC, widely regarded as the best conference in the country. Virginia was selected second behind North Carolina, while newcomer Virginia Tech, which made its first NCAA tournament appearance last year while a member of the Big East, was chosen seventh. In the ACC women's poll, Virginia was No. 3, Maryland No. 6 and Tech ninth. . . . American was picked second in both the Patriot League men's and women's preseason polls, while the Navy women, coming off an NCAA tournament appearance, are the No. 1 selection. Navy's men were chosen seventh out of eight teams. . . .
George Mason's teams were chosen third (men) and fifth (women) in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Georgetown men and women were predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Big East races. George Washington's men, who will host the Atlantic 10 tournament in November, were picked to finish sixth, while the women were fourth. . . . The Howard men will again play in the Atlantic Soccer Conference with Florida International, among others, while the women's team is an independent.