Dec 15, 2013; Chester, PA, USA; Maryland Terrapins forward Patrick Mullins (15) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half of the division I championship soccer game at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Maryland men’s soccer has turned around a rough start to the 2014 season with a five game winning streak that includes wins over top five Indiana and Penn State. In the first six games of the season, Maryland won once and was shut out in three games. It wasn’t the start anyone ever envisioned Maryland having under coach Sasho Cirovski. After splitting the next four games, Maryland has now taken off and is riding a five game winning streak.
The Terps are a talented team who returned several starters from last season’s national runner up team. Even with a talented roster, there is still a learning curve for a team when they are replacing offensive weapons with inexperienced players. This was the case for Maryland early on, as they were starting at least one freshman forward against a tough opening schedule.
As is the case with all coaches during a season, there are adjustments made once they have a better idea of what they have. Now that Coach Cirovski has figured out what he has available we have seen Maryland soccer take off. With three games left in the season, Maryland appears to be hitting their stride at the right time.
What was it that changed for Maryland between the opening night loss to Louisville, and the five game winning streak?
Twenty players have recorded a start for Maryland this season, and twenty-one players have been used through fifteen games. Coach Cirovski has shuffled around line-ups in an attempt to find what works best. Mael Corboz, Mikey Ambrose, Dan Metzger, Jereme Raley, Tsubasa Endoh, and Chris Odoi-Atsem are the only players to start every game they have been available for. In the second game of the season against Coastal Carolina, Maryland used nine substitutes, and against Indiana they used three. Once Sasho figured out what he had on his roster, we have seen him tighten up the rotation and use a set starting eleven.
Since losing 3-2 to Northwestern, Maryland has gone to the same starting eleven with the exception of one start by Christoffer Wallander-Lanev. Stability is important for any team to succeed. With the same starting eleven we have seen Maryland not only dominate possession but really challenge teams in a way that we didn’t see to start the season. In particular the combination of Michael Sauers and Mikey Ambrose on the left side with Alex Shinsky up top have become a key attacking combination for Maryland. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen will look their direction for quick breaks when he gathers the ball as most of the offense Maryland is generating will start with Ambrose at the point.
Senior Dan Metzger has been Maryland’s rock in midfield, and his play has helped to stabilize what was a shaky offense. Metzger leads the team in minutes played with 1,376 minutes out of a possible 1,380 minutes. While he has scored two goals this season, Metzger has done his work by keeping possessions alive for Maryland. He is a high IQ player, who can help facilitate the attack from a high position. Metzger’s ability to hold the ball and not feel pressured to make quick decisions is a large part of what makes Maryland’s high possession game possible. Without his ability to switch the point of attack, Maryland would find themselves playing defense much more than they are.
2) Alex Shinsky and Tsubasa Endoh
Both players have started nine out of the fifteen games played this season. Shinsky is tied for third with points at six, and has become a vital part of the Maryland offense. He is a pacey player and a pest on defense. Often he will occupy a role as a lone striker, and while his holding play isn’t great he makes up for it with his work ethic. The pressure he places on opposing defenses when they have the ball has helped Maryland to recover possession earlier and has forced a couple of turnovers that lead to quick transition. His work ethic was on full display against Penn State, and he was rewarded for it with his first goal of the season. Shinsky was overlooked at the beginning of the season, but he has worked himself into an important piece for Maryland.
Tsubasa Endoh brings a lot to the table that Maryland lacks. His ability with the ball and creative play is something that this year’s Maryland team doesn’t have. The difference when he is on the pitch is instantly noticeable. Defenses focus attention on Endoh, which frees up the pitch. Endoh is not afraid and has the ability to take defenders on one-v-one and will shoot the ball from almost anywhere in the attacking third. He has recovered from a rough start to the season to become the player fans expected in the preseason. Endoh brings shooting and creativity, which has been lacking from the 2014 Maryland Terrapins.
What team at Maryland doesn’t struggle with turnovers? From basketball to football to soccer, Maryland has a turnover problem. The soccer team has cut down on turnovers coming from the defense, which has greatly helped sophomore goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Against Louisville, Georgetown, Michigan State, and Northwestern, Maryland lost games by a goal that resulted from a deep turnover. What made the turnovers worse was the inability of the team to overcome them. Michigan State scored off a turnover early, Louisville shortly after half, Georgetown late, and Northwestern was a game winner. Regardless of when the turnovers came, they were the difference maker in close games. They also came at points in the season where Maryland was struggling to generate offense, which made climbing out of even a one game deficit tough.
Cutting down on turnovers isn’t just a result of the team valuing possessions more; it is more of a result from the experienced line-up. Early in the season, when Maryland was playing freshman forwards, they weren’t just struggling to create opportunities at net; they were struggling with holding possession. Shinsky isn’t the ideal holding forward, but he has helped to maintain possession better. Sauers is another player who has seen time at midfield and as a left-winger, and this has helped to cut down on turnovers. Since Maryland uses their defensive backs in attack often, the inability of the forwards to hold the ball leaves the team unorganized defensively.
Going on a run that includes two wins over top five teams isn’t the result of one change or one player. As a whole, Maryland has done a great job of improving from their early season mistakes. Coach Cirovski always plays a tough schedule and rightfully so, but unfortunately that can lead to a slow start. The experience that was gained through the start is what has made the back half of the season possible. Maryland soccer will always have talent, but sometimes it takes a little longer to figure out how to make it all work. Now that Maryland has done that, they look poised to make another deep NCAA Tournament run.