Sunday night's final was Maryland 1 UC Irvine 0. So it's on to California for Maryland and a rematch with the Golden Bears who defeated the Terps 3-2 in overtime in the season's second game. The winner will advance to the College Cup in Philadelphia.
The officials set the tone of the game early whistling four fouls in the first ten minutes - three of which were charged to Maryland. In all, the referee called thirty fouls and issued three yellow cards in a very physical game.
The Anteaters got off the game's first shot early in the eleventh minute but it went well wide and the Terps had the first corner kick in the fourteenth minute but Patrick Mullins had his shot blocked by UCI's defense.The corner seemed to ignite Maryland a bit as the Terps ramped up the pressure against a solid Big West opponent. The Anteaters entered the game having yielded only 18 goals in 22 games, with a record of 6-1-1 against NCAA Tournament teams including a win over top ranked UCLA, and had registered three consecutive shutouts. UC Irvine has also been a prolific second half scoring team so an early goal would provide an important advantage. The Terps had two dangerous crosses in the sixteenth minute and a huge opportunity in the eighteenth minute when Dan Metzger played a ball from the left of the box toward a streaking Patrick Mullins but the senior's header went just wide. A well organized attack by UC Irvine in the twenty third minute led to a chance for the visitors but the shot also sailed wide.
In the twenty-sixth minute, Irvine was whistled for the fifth of their six first half fouls. This had a bit of danger for the visiting team as Tsubasa Endoh lined up the free kick from thirty-two yards straight on. He struck the ball well but it sailed high. Mikias Eticha picked up a well won ball near midfield in the twenty seventh minute and played the ball ahead to Metzger but Mullins couldn't get clear of two UCI defenders to control Metzger's cross. The Terrapins pressure finally paid off in the thirty-second minute when Mullins took a cross from Endoh who had driven to the end line and knocked it in from three yards for the score. Endoh made a great run down the right side usung ball fakes to get behind two defenders. Tsubasa had great balance and agility to get past their left back," Mullins said after the game. "That's one of those plays when it just feels like everybody is getting sucked to the near post and sometimes it's those delayed runs that pay off. I think I was probably the third guy on our team running in. I just took a hard strong run and I kind of split two defenders and from there it's just a matter of getting your foot on it and it's going in the goal."
Maryland had a real opportunity to pad the lead in the forty-first minute when Mullins corralled a long ball down the left side and played it across to Jake Pace. Pace made a one touch pass to Alex Shinsky who launched a low drive from 22 yards but UC Irvine's goalkeeper Michael Breslin came up with the diving save. In what amounted to a preview of the second half, Irvine made a late run at the Terrapins goal after winning a ball along the right side but Terrapin keeper Zack Steffen came up with the save punching the ball safely over the net. He cleared the ensuing corner with but punching it up the field and the Terps took a 1-0 lead into the half.
The second half saw a change in tactics from the Anteaters. According to Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, "One of their holding midfielders pushed forward so they almost had two attacking midfielders. It took a while for us to adjust." And frankly, had the Terps not had an exceptionally talented goalkeeper in Zack Steffen who was the star of the game, it might be UC Irvine not merely returning to the west coast but returning to play another match. Steffen's first of four saves in the half came in the forty-ninth minute and was the most routine of the four. Things would get tougher from there. In the fifty eighth minute, Steffen again punched the ball over the net on an open shot from Enrique Cardenas from just outside the box. The freshman came up big again in the sixty-fourth minute but perhaps his biggest save came late in the game. In the eighty- sixth minute, Lester Hayes, III took a cross inside five yards. Steffen somehow managed to deflect and control the header preserving the one goal lead. "I was a little rusty at the beginning of the year," said Steffen. (Steffen had taken over two months off to recover from an injury.) "I've definitely learned a lot and the experience of the games has helped my reactions." The Anteaters also had a goal denied on an offsides call in the eighty-eighth minute.
This is not to say that Maryland played the entire second half on their heels. As Cirovski said, "We had a couple of chances to get the second goal that we could have taken better and relieved some pressure. We could have been a little bit better with the ball at times and kept it. But these were games at the beginning of the year that we would have found a way to lose and now we're finding ways to win." Maryland now needs to find one more way to win, this one on the road in Berkeley, to reach the program's eighth College Cup appearance under Cirovski.