The most competitive coaches hate to lose. They will say that, although it is sometimes easier to get a player's attention after a loss, no loss is a good loss. However, if the play of Maryland's men's soccer squad in the aftermath of their overtime loss at Northwestern becomes the norm for the remainder of the season, then that loss may prove to be as close to a "good" loss as Coach Sacsho Cirovski and his players will admit.
A brief review
On the heels of their loss to Georgetown, in which they were shutout for the fourth time this season, the Terps traveled to Evanston to tackle a Northwestern Wildcats squad that had yet to yield a goal on its home field. It looked like a dangerous situation for a floundering Maryland team. It became even more perilous when the Wildcats scored twice in the game's first 12 minutes.
Maryland's string of 146 scoreless minutes ended when a handball in the box earned the Terrapins a penalty kick that Mael Corboz converted. Forty minutes into the second half - in which Maryland out shot Northwestern 8-4 - Jeroen Meefout converted a pass from Michael Sauers and the Terps had the equalizer and their first goal in the run of play in over 200 minutes of play.
The game ended in controversy when Northwestern's Joey Calistri appeared first to foul Terrapins defender Suli Dankeh and then to push the ball over the back line. Despite the lack of whistles, Maryland players relaxed and Northwestern played on ringing up the game winning goal. Cirovski exploded on the sideline and eventually received a one game suspension from the Big Ten for his outburst.
The upshot of Cirovski's suspension meant that, without their head coach, Maryland would have to face the deceptively tough Virginia Commonwealth University Rams. Although the Rams came to College Park with a 4-6-1 record, they also came with an RPI nearly 25 places above Maryland.
Perhaps seeing their coach stand up for them so assertively inspired Maryland or perhaps as a team they saw their season slipping away but Maryland came out aggressively under the leadership of interim head coach Brian Rowland and for the second consecutive game picked up a penalty kick in the first half when Rams goalkeeper Garrett Cyprus put an American football tackle on Alex Shinsky.
Cyprus picked up a red card and Corboz picked up the goal. Talking about the team's attitude heading into the game without their coach, defender Jereme Raley said, "We were definitely hungrier. This is our season. We need to take control of it."
Down a player and playing with their backup goalkeeper, the Rams retreated into a defensive posture that stifled Maryland's attack but also limited their own opportunities to long runs on counters. Rams head coach Dave Giffard may have held memories of the previous season's game when Maryland defensive breakdowns led to three VCU goals in the game's final 13 minutes that propelled his squad from 0-2 to a 3-2 win.
Though the Terps wouldn't score again, there would also be no defensive lapses. Said Rowland, "Playing with ten men, I thought they sat a little deeper and the game didn't get opened up as much as we thought. I think we were worried about their counter attacks and we were mindful of keeping good possession without turning the ball over."
Penn State - Three key returns
An even stiffer test came Sunday afternoon when the conference leading and undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions visited College Park. In the VCU game, Maryland was bolstered by the return of a healthy and effective Alex Shinsky to their lineup. For Sunday's game with the Nittany Lions, three more important pieces would return. Cirovski returned to the sideline, but more critically, Tsubasa Endoh and Mikias Eticha returned to the pitch.
Throughout the season, Maryland's offense has been stifled by a lack of creativity and crisp ball movement. Rather than making one touch passes, Terrapins attackers would frequently take two or three dribbles allowing opposing defenses to reshape and thwart the Terps' efforts.
From the opening kickoff against Penn State, Maryland looked like a team transformed. It seemed as though the soccer fairy had waved a magic wand over the squad erasing all their bad habits and replacing them with a style of play they needed to be effective.
Entering the game, Penn State had surrendered only three goals for the season and goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton, the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and reigning Defensive Player of the Week had conceded only two of those. Leaving the game, Terrapins junior midfielder Mael Corboz scored twice doubling Wolverton's total by his efforts alone. But unlike the VCU game, Corboz wasn't alone in his efforts. Both Shinsky and Endoh got shots behind the frustrated and befuddled Penn State keeper.
After the game, Cirovski acknowledged the importance of the returning players, "It was really a delight to be able to have all of the available players for the first time all year. I really felt like we had some great contributions all over the field but having Mikias and Alex and Tsubasa all on the field at the same time I thought gave us a great performance."
What does it all mean?
With six games remaining before the B1G Tournament, the Terps are looking at a 5-5-2 record and are 2-2-1 in conference play. Given the logjam of the second through seventh place teams in the current conference standings, trying to project Maryland's finish is an exercise in confusion. Here are some facts:
In the B1G standings, second place Michigan has eight points. Indiana and Michigan State both have seven as does Maryland. However, the Terps have played five conference games and the other two squads only four. Ohio State has six points and seventh place Northwestern five.
The Terrapins' six games are split with three conference and three non-conference foes on the slate.
Four of those games are at home where Maryland is 5-2-1. However, two of the three conference games are away from College Park and the Terps have yet to pick up a road win sporting a 0-3-1 record on the season.
Maryland's current RPI is 36 but in only two of the remaining games - at Indiana and home against Ohio State - will the Terps face teams above them in that important ranking scheme. Of the remaining four teams, three are currently ranked between 76 and 90 but one, Hartwick at 193, will drop Maryland's RPI regardless of the outcome.
Cirovski and his players insist they are focused only on the game immediately facing them. "We're not thinking about the post season," Cirovski said following Sunday's win. "Right now all we're thinking about is next Wednesday's game against Lehigh. We're not focused on rankings and things a week from now. We're focused on the next game. That's the approach we've tried to take all year but I think now everyone's understanding that's the way it has to be."
Alex Shinsky added, "We know it's do or die at this point. We dug ourselves a hole at the beginning of the season. We're taking it one game at a time. We have to come out with the same kind of intensity and concentration we showed today."
And Corboz echoed those sentiments, "After the Northwestern game we were really angry. I think there's a good mindset right now. We're playing with a chip on our shoulder. We have to keep it going that way and keep working hard and the results will come. We have to win one game at a time and we'll see about the postseason later."
After the win against Penn State, Cirovski said, "I think this is a transformational game for us. I think the belief and the confidence you're going to see will keep coming through in future games." However, as Shinsky noted, their early season struggles have certainly upped the ante for these late season games. The question facing Maryland now is whether they have enough hands left to play and enough chips remaining on their shoulders to capture a postseason pot that will erase the sting and memory of those early losses.