After No. 23 Maryland men’s soccer’s offense struggled to manage so much as a semblance of a threat on goal through the first 70 minutes of play, the Terps’ attack desperately looked for someone to step up as the match winded down.
But, as it has time and time again this season, Sasho Cirovski’s squad turned to senior captain Eli Crognale with an opportunity to put Maryland ahead on a penalty chance. Stepping up to the spot, Crognale fired one into the top right corner, hushing the Northwestern faithful as he dashed to the corner of the pitch to celebrate with his teammates.
Fifth-seeded Maryland held for the final 20 minutes of action, avenging its September loss to fourth-seeded Northwestern with a 1-0 victory to secure a spot in the Big Ten semifinals against Indiana on home turf at Ludwig Field.
“We came here with a mission, and mission accomplished,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We remembered the poor performance against Northwestern earlier in the year and we’re grateful we had another opportunity here, and I thought we came here and played very tactically astute game.”
Northwestern (8-8-2, 3-4-2 Big Ten) came out in the early going exuding much of the same confidence it showed when it took down the Terps back in September, stringing together long bouts of possession through the match’s early action.
Just as other teams have attacked them in the past, the Wildcats set out to test the Terps’ box defending early and often, funneling their attack through wingers Bardia Kimiavi and Matt Moderwell.
But the Terps (10-6-2, 4-3-2) showed some improvement after allowing Michigan to dominate aerially the last time they took the pitch. Though junior defender Ben Di Rosa was forced to leave the match after 12 minutes, senior defender Johannes Bergmann held down the back line and headed away any and all balls crossed into the box to keep the Wildcats from being able to capitalize on their strong offensive start.
“The few times [Kimiavi and Moderwell] were able to penetrate, I thought our box defending was outstanding,” Cirovski said. “We knew that if we could neutralize the wide areas for Northwestern that we could have a lot of success, and as the game progressed you saw more and more of that going our way.”
It was an uninspired performance for the Terp attack early on, as they struggled to change ends on the field and maintain possession into the Wildcat zone for much of the first half.
Maryland failed to generate a shot until the 31 minute mark of the period, generating just two shots over the first 45 minutes after scoring five first half goals over its last three matches.
Both teams went into the break knotted at 0-0, but Northwestern appeared every bit of the better team on the pitch on Sunday afternoon in the first half. With Maryland’s attack nowhere to be found, it began to look as if it was only a matter of time before the Wildcats would go ahead.
But the Terps showed a bit more mettle in their attempts on goal into the second half, as Bergmann came inches away from putting Maryland on top in the 48th minute. With a corner kick from Crognale bouncing back and forth around the Northwestern 18, Bergmann had a go from just outside the box, but the shot deflected off the crossbar to keep the score level.
With neither side looking incredibly menacing as time trickled off the clock, Northwestern committed the error that head coach Tim Lenahan feared most.
As freshman midfielder Nick Richardson chased down a rolling ball played into the box by fellow freshman midfielder David Kovacic, he was taken down by sophomore defender Jayson Cyrus, drawing the whistle from the referee. Crognale stepped up to the spot, lacing one past Northwestern keeper Miha Miskovic to put Maryland ahead for good.
“I saw the ball was being switched and I saw a great opportunity to try and get in behind,” Richardson said. “I tried to flick it over him but they came in pretty hard on me ... I was glad to draw the PK for my team.”
The Terps have had their share of struggles in the Big Ten tournament since capturing the conference title in 2016, falling in the first round of the 2017 tournament and being handed an early exit at the hands of Indiana in 2018. But now they’ll have home advantage with the hopes of winning it all in College Park as they did back in 2014.
Three Things to Know
- Eli Crognale continues his hot streak. The captain has been on an absolute tear as of late for the Terps, as Sunday’s match marked the sixth consecutive contest that he’s had a point in, as well as his third straight with a goal. With three goals and four assists to his name over that span, Crognale has elevated his level of play as the season has progressed.
“I’m in that 10 role now, so I’m playing higher up the field so I’m kind of just more involved in the attack,” Crognale said of his point streak. “I’m getting the ball around the box and around the goal so I have more opportunities to create and finish off goals.”
2. Maryland continues to play it close in the Big Ten tournament. The Terps haven’t necessarily made things easy for their supporters in Big Ten tournament play over the last two seasons, as each of their last four matches have been decided by one goal. It hasn’t always lended itself to success in the past, but Maryland has shown an aptness this winning matches by one goal this season, doing so now six times in 2019.
3. Niklas Neumann made the difference in cage. Freshman Russell Shealy was the keeper Cirovski opted for when these two teams first met back in September, allowing three goals in what ended up being his final start of the season before the switch to Neumann was made permanent. Neumann had another strong day in net for the Terps on Sunday, as the All-Big Ten Second Team selection notched five saves on the afternoon while earning his ninth clean sheet of the season.
“I thought Niklas played very well,” Richardson said. “I thought he communicated very well, his goal kicks were excellent and he made a huge save for us in the second half to keep us in the game.”