Regular readers of Testudo Times may by now have determined a trait that Maryland men's head soccer coach Sasho Cirovski and I share - expansiveness. Cirovski can be an expansive talker and I am typically an expansive writer. Given the novelty of the upcoming season, expansiveness somehow seems appropriate. Let's hope it doesn't become tedious.
Although I remain a bit skeptical of the coach's analysis of the challenges of the conference schedule, it is clear that, while the Big Ten is not quite as top heavy as the ACC, there is a great deal of balance and the middle of the leagues are quite comparable. It's notable that, for a team facing some tangible transitional issues on its front line, Cirovski has elected to load the front of his schedule with three very challenging games right out of the gate.
Building a schedule Sasho's way -
"We're always going to play tough teams on opening weekends..."
Maryland begins play at Louisville Friday night. The Cardinals finished thirty-third in RPI in 2013 and are ranked fourteenth in the preseason NSCAA poll. Compounding the challenge of opening on the road against a top fifteen squad, the Terps will be the Cardinals' first opponent in their new 5,300 seat $18.5 million soccer only stadium. "I'm always going to try to play my first game on the road against a top ten or top fifteen team every year," Cirovski said. He reminded us, "In 2005 we went out to UCLA and we ended up losing that game but we came back strong. In 2008, same thing."
This is part of the coach's big picture plan for the season. "We're always going to play tough teams in opening weekends because it's a time that you see what you're good at and you see what you're not good at. Last year obviously we saw a back line that needed some real tweaking and work and we moved some people around."
Cirovski has loaded the early portion of the schedule. No only do the Terps travel travel to Louisville to open the season he backed that up in their first two home games when Maryland will host two more teams ranked in the preseason top 20 - Costal Carolina (#17) and UMBC (#19). "Our first six games are against NCAA Tournament teams. Admittedly, two of those are conference games but I purposefully scheduled our first four non-conference games against tough teams. And we're going to have some rough moments in those games. I want to find out what needs tweaking in the first week of September when we have time to fix it. But after those six games, you're going to see a really tough Maryland team going through the last 12 games of the year."
A tough end -
"That was the hardest part of that game..."
The Terps, who return eight or nine starters from last season's squad, lost a controversial 2-1 decision to Notre Dame in the 2013 national championship game. The controversy occurred in the eleventh minute when Notre Dame's Patrick Hodan appeared to have deliberately used his arm to block a Maryland shot off a corner kick and neither a foul nor a red card was issued. "That was the hardest part of that game," Cirovski said. "Everywhere I went, people reminded me of it over and over and over."
Asked about the game's impact on the team as it moves forward, Cirovski replied, "We only brought in six new players so most of the guys still have a bitter taste in their mouth. So you use it as motivation, absolutely. We're not good losers. We're good sports but we're not good losers. We learn from those moments and we want to make sure that nobody outworks us whether it's in the spring, the summer or each game."
Though pushed a bit, it was clear to me that this was a topic that Coach Cirovski would have preferred to let go and move on. However, I had to ask him his feelings on the way Patrick Mullins conducted himself in the post game interview. This is what the coach said about his two time Mac Hermann Award winner:
"There were so many emotions going on after that game but when you see one of your players accept responsibility and talk about the sequence of events that went on, you just feel so proud because these are things you want to teach your players through sport. For me, it was a massive point of pride that this was one of my guys that has these standards and holds the game in that much respect. I'm not sure I've ever been more proud of a player.
"With all the emotions that were swirling in those moments immediately after that game, to see your player stand up there with the conscience that he had in that moment makes you feel good about what you're doing on a daily basis in developing people.We have four key words at Maryland: 'Building champions. Pursuing championships.' And that young man may not have won a championship but he was a champion that day."
Building leadership -
"That's probably our biggest challenge right now..."
Replacing Patrick Mullins means more than replacing just a great player and scorer for Maryland. It's clear he was a player of unique integrity who led the Terrapins on and off the field. As a result, one of the challenges facing Cirovski is replacing that leadership. On the field, we should expect to see leadership by committee. In the back, it will start with goalkeeper Zack Steffen. "Even though he's a sophomore, he plays a critical position. This makes him an extremely valuable leader on the field. He organizes his defense and talks extremely well."
In the midfield, Cirovski expects much from his captains - Dan Metzger and Alex Shinsky. " We've already talked about Dan but Alex is a player who's very inspirational. He plays hard. He tackles hard. He gets forward. He can even be a bit reckless because he wants so badly to win." Toward the front, the coach cited Rutgers transfer Mael Corboz as someone who is emerging as a key vocal leader and Tsubasa Endoh who "simply makes things happen" is another player who leads by example.
However, Mullins was not only a leader on the field but off the field as well. "I think that's probably our biggest challenge right now. He and Jake Pace took on that role on the sideline, in the locker room, in training and that's such an important part of being successful. We've spent a lot of time on not just identifying leaders but developing those abilities. They have to understand the influence they have. We have a leadership group we meet with regularly. We don't want to change who our players are as people but rather have them develop their skills and do things their way. It's a process but I think it's coming together. After our first four or five games, I think that's when you'll see it all sink in and come together."
Some lighter moments -
"We hung out a lot as a team."
In the spring of 2014, Cirovski was able to take is squad to England to play some matches" against developmental teams there. (No athletic department funds were harmed in the making of this trip. It was fully donor funded.) The Terps had the chance to play Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Crystal Palace in a trip that the coach called (in perhaps a bit of understatement) "really beneficial for us on lots of levels."
For Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, the Terps played a mixture of their under 21 and under 18 teams. While Maryland faced mostly the starters from Tottenham's U-21 and U-18 squads and the full U-21 squad of Crystal Palace, with Man-U the squad the Terps faced was, according to Cirovski, more of their second group.
In addition to competing, the Terps had the chance to see Manchester United play Liverpool at Old Trafford. For Steffen, this game and seeing many of the other stadiums was a highlight of the trip. For Shinsky, who said the Terps also did lots of shopping, his high moments came from having players from United's first team come out and watch the game and having a first team player from Tottenham coach on the opposite side. Metzger simply dropped into full captain mode saying the high point for him was that, "We hung out a lot as a team. I think we became closer altogether."
As noted above, a certain danger arises when an expansive talker and an expansive writer are coupled on a single story. Both natter on and, believe it or not, enough material remains for a third, albeit shorter, story. But it's time to kick off the season.
For those of you who still harbor that bit of bitterness from last season, I will leave you with this last thought from Coach Cirovski and a sign in the Maryland soccer locker room:
"The greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall."
For Maryland soccer, this season is about rising.