With about ten minute left in the first half of Sunday's NCAA men's soccer championship game the cup looked half full for the Maryland Terrapins and their fans. After dominating the first six minutes of the match then watching as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish took control of the run of play for twelve minutes or so, the Terps had come back to score the game's first goal off a corner kick to take a 1-0 lead. There was some controversy attached to the goal, as we will discuss later, but the Terps would not maintain this initial advantage and in the end fell to the Irish by a 2-1 final score.
As the game opened, Maryland held long possessions in the Notre Dame half creating some dangerous chances that, in the end, the Irish defended well. Although the Terps had several well developed chances in these early minutes, they failed to launch a shot and it was the Irish who managed the game's initial shot a low grounder that Terrapin keeper Zack Steffen handled easily. Notre Dame star and Mac Hermann Trophy finalist Harrison Shipp got off the game's first dangerous shot in the eleventh minute but Steffen made a diving save deflecting the ball over the end line.
Maryland's defense managed the two ensuing corner kicks reasonably well clearing the ball out of danger but allowing Notre Dame to maintain their pressure. A Terrapin foul led to an Irish free kick from about 20 yards with the ball held in several dangerous situations before the Terps' defense finally cleared it.
Beginning in the seventeenth minute or so the Terps looked to regain their footing as they began to increase the pressure on a stout Notre Dame defense with a beautiful one touch pass from Mullins to Jereme Raley. The Irish defended the play well and countered quickly earning their third corner kick of the game. Again Maryland's defense stepped up and handled the situation well.
Mullins did some strong work in the left corner to draw the Terrapins' first corner kick in the twenty-first minute. Alex Shinsky did the same a few minutes later but in one case Tsubasa Endoh's serve sailed a bit high and in the others the Irish played solid defense diffusing any Terrapin threat. In the twenty-ninth minute, Shinsky earned another corner kick for Maryland by Noter Dame goalkeeper Patrick Wall intercepted the cross.
About five minutes later the first controversy arose. Maryland had its fifth corner of the half and this time Endoh's service was nearly perfect as Shinsky rose and launched a header that appeared headed for the goal when Notre Dame's Patrick Hodan standing on the goal line appeared to extend his arm and block the shot with his elbow. About eight Terrapin arms flew into the air looking for a handball call but none came. I'll let Patrick Mullins describe what happened next:
"It was definitely a crazy play and a lot of things happened in a short period of time. From what I can remember a cross came in, our player, I'm pretty sure Shinsky hit a great shot. It did hit the kid's hand on the line. It bounced out- came back out and I made a mistake on my part. I'm very disappointed in myself for doing that but in the heat of the moment I hit it down with my hand and like any good forward I put it in the net. That's not who I am. I'm very disappointed in how that play resulted. All I can control is my actions and I'm not happy with that action. It's definitely hard for me to swallow because I don't think that's the type of player I am or the type of person. Obviously the referee is a great referee and I'm sure he'll look back unfortunately on that play too because it was just a comedy of plays that players and refs want to take back. I will regret that for the rest of my life. But I'll move forward. People make mistakes and that's all I've got to say about that."
A bit later, Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski added these comments:
About the call in the first half (and a subsequent non-call): "I think there's a lot of things out there, as Patrick said, that are difficult for the referees. We got the end result of the goal on the first play. I didn't see it on the replay. It's unfair for me to comment right now. I think Chico is the best referee in this country. I have full faith in him. I think once we review it on video I might be hurting a little more but at this point we have no control over any of the situations. I have no regrets about the game."
About Patrick Mullins (and his admission): "It says that when I build my stadium I'm going to bronze a statue of the young man in front. He's made of the best stuff on earth. It affected him. It affected him a lot after that moment. We had some good talks. I think he tried to push through and he did in true Patrick Mullins fashion but it did affect him because he is as good as it gets. He is a very tough person as we've seen throughout the year. His conscience was hurting and he put too much on himself. There were many players that had intentional handballs in the game. It'll be a learning lesson for him but his character is shining through - is worthy of a championship. He's a special person. He represents our program well."
I'll leave it to you to decide whether, in the rush of the play and in the heat of the moment, the referee simply failed to react quickly enough to blow the first whistle and, on seeing the second handball and subsequent goal, decided the play was more or less the equivalent of offsetting fouls in American football or that he should have blown the whistle regardless, negated the goal, issued a red card and awarded Maryland a penalty kick.
Regardless, Maryland led 1-0 and after a fine defensive play by Suli Dainkeh to clear a Notre Dame free kick in the thirty-seventh minute, the Irish, responding well after the goal, knotted the score at one in the fortieth minute. Nick Besler made a long throw-in from the right side toward Luke Mishu at the corner of the box. Mishu's redirected header came perfectly to the feet of Leon Brown who had entered the game after Notre Dame striker Vince Cicciarelli fell and broke his collarbone. Dainkeh had slipped on the play giving Brown space to gather the ball, make a quick turn of his hips and whip a shot from a difficult angle to the far post just under Steffens's outstretched arm. Somehow it seemed fitting that the squads went to halftime tied at one and that the final forty-five minutes would decide the national champion.
As they had to start the game, the Terps had a strong start to the second half controlling the ball and pressuring the Irish defense for several minutes. The flow of play turned quickly once Notre Dame had it first counter in the fiftieth minute. A pass from Harrison Shipp got to Brown who was behind Steffen bu this time he couldn't turn on the ball and his shot rolled weakly toward the goal where Chris Odoi-Atsem cleared it for Maryland.
From this point forward, the Irish appeared to be the better and fresher team. Whether this was the result of having had an extra few hours to rest after Friday's games or Maryland expending energy to be certain they opened each half strongly, or Mullins still feeling emotionally weighted down by his first half play, or simply that Notre Dame was the better squad on Sunday, I'm in no position to judge. But they did appear to be playing better than the Terps.
This better play resulted in a goal in the sixtieth minute after a Maryland foul. Shipp played a perfect ball off the free kick to Andrew O'Malley who exploited, what Cirovski called ,"our lack of size on set pieces. We've got one player over six feet in the starting lineup. We're a little Barcelona - gym rats running around trying to play good soccer." As Steffen shifted his weight right, O'Malley directed his header inside the left post and the Terrapin keeper couldn't quite recover.
The second controversial non-call came about seven minutes later. The sequence began when Endoh, who had been the most creative player on the field for Maryland played a ball from the box back out to Jereme Raley who had come down the right side. Raley played a beautiful pass into the box toward Mullins who had split Notre Dame's center backs just inside the six yard box. The senior forward simply couldn't quite get enough on his header to get it past Wall who then punched the ball over the back line. On the ensuing corner, it looked as though Irish midfielder Connor Klekota committed another handball violation that could have led to a Maryland penalty kick. It happened quickly and didn't appear to be deliberate (as the first one had) and it's possible that the official's judgement was that the ball played the hand rather than vice versa but it certainly didn't appear that way to Terrapin supporters.
Though the Terrapins ramped up the pressure over the last fifteen minutes or so - as any Sasho Cirovski team would - their real chances were few and not particularly dangerous. The Terps made the Irish "work very hard" as coach Bobby Clark put it I could point to a few moments such as Endoh's shot from about twenty yards in the eighty-fourth minute that went well wide but that Wall had a clear look at had it been on goal and, of course, the handball that eventually drew a whistle early in the eighty-ninth minute just outside the eighteen but Mullins shot went far wide of the goal and posed no real threat.
As for the future of Maryland, once again, I'll leave it for Coach Cirovski: "We're going to get back to works right after exams. We're going to try and get back. We work hard on developing leaders. Danny Metzger is going to take on the next role. He's ready for it. We have a resilience in our program - not just in one game. And if you look at what we've done over the last twelve years - and you guys can figure out the statistics - but I'm not sure there's a Division I men's program in maybe any sport that can match the success of Maryland men's soccer."