SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Midway through the 2018-19 men’s college soccer season, it looked as if both Maryland and Akron would be left out of the NCAA tournament. The teams were flirting with .500 before each took off on blistering runs, advancing to Sunday night’s College Cup final.
The Terrapins rode into the final on a stifling defense, and that defense delivered again against the Zips in a 1-0 win, Maryland’s fifth straight shutout.
The championship is the fourth in program history for the Terrapins, who achieved no small measure of redemption after early tournament exits the past two seasons.
The winning margin came courtesy of a converted penalty from senior midfielder Amar Sejdic in the 57th minute.
“Champions. In early October it didn’t feel like it was going to be that, and I could not be more proud of this team and these seniors after the journey they have been on with tough losses in 2015, 2016, 2017. And the result of that is they are now like diamonds,” Coach Sasho Cirovski said.
The win secured Maryland’s first title since 2008 and third under Cirovski. With the win, the Terrapins finish the season 13-6-4. Akron, which earned a trip to the final with a 5-1 semifinal rout over Michigan State, finished 15-7-2.
Just as he was Friday in a 2-0 semifinal win over Indiana, junior Donovan Pines was a key cog in thwarting many of Akron’s early opportunities. In the eighth minute he successfully headed away a corner kick that could have been trouble. He continued tracking players like a hawk all night.
“We always work in practice on tracking guys, and we are so competitive that it gets you better for every game,” Pines said. “They are the reason I work hard and why I could succeed.”
Junior goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair also came up big in the 35th minute, when a corner from Akron’s Skye Harter found teammate Daniel Strachan in the box. Strachan put his head under it and put a shot on goal, but the Terps’ keeper came up with the save. St. Clair finished with two saves.
Offensively, Maryland had a few good looks in the first half but none better than when senior midfielder DJ Reeves took a clean, right-footed shot from the right side of the box. Akron goalkeeper Ben Lundt made a great diving save, and teammate Marco Milanese cleared it away from danger.
In the second half, the intensity started picking up. But the chippy play got the best of the Zips. In the 57th minute, Akron freshman Colin Biros was looking to clear a ball out of play but unintentionally kicked Maryland’s Johannes Bergmann in the face, resulting in a penalty in the box.
Sejdic took the ensuing penalty kick and booted it to the bottom left corner for the game’s only goal. It was the first penalty shot Maryland made in regulation all year.
Following the goal, Akron looked to play with a lot more pace on the flanks. But when Pines was not disrupting runs, Terrapins defenders such as Bergmann or Ben Di Rosa were making it difficult for the Zips to score the equalizer.
“We all played so great tonight. It wasn’t just me tracking guys down. Everybody did their part, and now we are champions. It feels great,” Pines said.
In the 76th minute, another foul on Akron in the box, this time on goalkeeper Ben Lundt, set up Sejdic for another penalty shot. Lundt successfully blocked it after Sejdic hesitated, and the momentum of the match appeared to be turning.
That momentum disappeared in the 81st minute after Akron’s Carlo Ritaccio was given a red card and ejected after fouling Reeves near the top of the box.
Akron still managed to put together a few runs in the final minutes, but playing a man down got the better of it in the end.
“It is truly an honor for me even as an attacking player that we didn’t concede a goal the entire tournament, and it means even more wearing this captain’s armband and representing this university,” Sejdic said.
Because of that effort, Maryland was able to get the redemption it sought all season.
“This is a good story of overcoming adversity and reestablishing our culture and identity,” Cirovski said. “This has been the epitome of Maryland men’s soccer this year, and I am so happy and proud of this program.”