"This time of year is always a great time. It's been a long time since last December," so started Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski as he met with media members prior to the opening of the 2013 season. Cirovski believes he has put together an uncompromising schedule that will prove an early challenge.
In the first bit of news, he confirmed that, while he has great faith in and is comfortable using all four of his goalkeepers, freshman Zack Steffen has won the starting position. At least two other freshmen, Alex Crognale and Suli Dainkeh will join Steffen on the starting back line with Mikey Ambrose being the only returning starter. Couple this defensive youth with a schedule that sees the Terps on the road for four of their first six games most against potential tournament teams and the early challenge becomes obvious. The fourth starter on the back line, Cirovski said, will likely be Dakota Edwards but he might not be available this weekend because of injury. He declined to say who might start in Edwards' place should the sophomore be unavailable.
However, fans can look for junior co-captain Dan Metzger to help anchor the back either as a holding midfielder or filling in as an outside back. Cirovski says that Metzger has a tremendous work rate and "a set of skills that blend well for how we play."
The early trip out west is something Cirovski has been trying to arrange for a few years. In perhaps another attempt to temper early season expectations he said, "We've always had some challenges out there and have sometimes lost one game or sometimes two games." He likes the idea of challenging his teams and said that the goal for the season is not to be undefeated but to have the team playing its best soccer in November and December. Given how easily Maryland handled both teams in their most recent visits to College Park he also noted that he expected both Stanford and Cal who are improved from last year to be "highly motivated."
When the subject of dealing with this season's particularly high expectations arose, Cirovski pointed to his senior leadership singling out each of his seniors by name. He revealed that Jordan Cyrus will stay on as an undergraduate assistant coach. Cirovski is confident that this group can keep the team focused on the ultimate goal. Asked if Cyrus' loss will serve as a motivation for the team, the coach stressed that the motivation is to play for the university and to represent Maryland's soccer tradition with pride.
Inevitably the subject turned to Patrick Mullins - a player for whom Cirovski has enormous admiration. He spoke of his growth as a player, his academic excellence, his humility and his willingness to work. Coach noted that every time he has challenged Mullins the senior forward has improved whether it was becoming mentally tougher, increasing his range, or improving his right foot. In fact, when Mullins came to tell Cirovski of his decision to return for his senior year he said, "Coach, I think I can get better. Sasho responded, "Okay."
The coach is not concerned about the team looking ahead. He believes they understand the culture and process to keep getting better that are part of the program at Maryland and that they stay focused on the moment. That discipline will likely serve them well as they enter into what Cirovski believes will be the most competitive ACC ever with the addition of powerhouse Notre Dame, improving Syracuse and a possibly resurgent Pitt.
The conversation circled back to the freshman class and he said that all of the freshmen have done quite well. We already knew that Crognale and Dainkeh will start in the back but Cirovski disclosed that Michael Sauers is in contention to start in the midfield or some other position as he can "play eight of the ten field positions." In another bit of news, we learned of a late freshman addition to the squad Emmanuel Korvah a forward from Herndon. Korvah was initially slated to go to the USMA at West Point but "things didn't work out and we were able to pick him up. He's got the makings of a very good player," Cirovski said.
About forty minutes in, seniors Jake Pace and Sunny Jane joined the conversation. Earlier, Cirovski had indicated that with the expected double teams that Mullins will face the Terps would be looking to open more opportunities for Jane. When a reported asked Jane if this indicated a lessening of his defensive responsibilities, Cirovski quickly interjected, "No!."
The players are looking forward to starting the season both for the trip and for the competition. Pace spoke of taking a leadership and setting the "model of what you should be as a Maryland soccer player." Pace and Jane spoke about Mullins in much the same terms as their coach describing him as the ultimate team player and being the player that keeps everyone grounded who consistently seeks to deflect attention from himself to the team. The team has certainly put in the work during the summer to be successful as Jane remarked that eighteen to twenty of us were around for the summer the most since he'd been at Maryland.
In response to my question about the atmosphere at Ludwig, Pace gave a shout out to the Crew saying, "Our fans prove that they're the best in the nation time and time again. It's so much fun to play in front of them. The atmosphere we get there is like nothing at any of the other stadiums we've played at and it's an experience that not a lot of college players get." The rabid enthusiasm even impressed them during their recruiting particularly that they show up for every game, not just the big games.
The team leaves for the west coast tomorrow. They will face off against Stanford in the season opener Friday night.