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With the finish line in sight, the No. 7 Maryland men’s soccer team looks to emulate its 2018 title run

Maryland finishes the regular season with three Big Ten matches, starting Friday against Michigan State.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

In 2018, Maryland men’s soccer ascended to the mountain top of collegiate soccer. After going 13-6-4 in the regular season and losing via penalty kicks in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, Maryland entered the tournament with a chip on its shoulder.

The team rattled off five straight shutouts to clinch a national title, proving its prowess on the defensive side while also producing on offense thanks to its limitless pool of talent.

Defender Brett St. Martin was a part of that championship journey and went through both the highs and lows.

“You can see at the start of the season we had a lot of talent and we couldn’t win games,” St. Martin said about that team. “It’s so hard to win games in the Big Ten, it’s so hard to win games in the NCAA, and you really have to outwork opponents and just talent alone isn’t going to be the team.”

Fast forward to 2021 and the No. 7-ranked Terrapins are in a similar position. They have the talent to compete with any team in the country, but it hasn’t necessarily been evident on a nightly basis throughout the year.

A torrid start on offense segued into head coach Sasho Cirovski switching it up with a formation change following an anemic performance versus perennial No. 1 Georgetown. A dominant stretch from the defense thereafter was then accompanied by an offense that struggled to deliver against the likes of Rutgers and Wisconsin.

While Maryland showed off its elite skills on both sides of the ball, putting it all together had continued to elude the Terps heading into a two-game slate of nonconference games.

The first of the two games was a road matchup against Delaware, a team that currently sits at 1-10-1 and is last place in the Colonial Athletic Association.

The Terrapins had their way with the Blue Hens during regulation, shoving 16 shots at a defense that allowed 2.7 goals per game at the time of the match. Despite the high shot total (and minuscule four attempts from its opponent), Maryland had nothing to show for it, forcing the game into extra time tied at zero.

It was there that midfielder Ben Bender became the savior for the Terrapins in the 98th minute, allowing the national title hopefuls to escape by the skin of its teeth against a clearly inferior team.

There have been several instances this season, such as against Delaware, in which Maryland struggled to convert in the attacking third despite a plethora of chances.

A season shot percentage mark of .111 trails three teams in the Big Ten — Indiana (.158) and Penn State (.120), two of Maryland’s upcoming opponents, and a Northwestern team (.152) that the Terps defeated 3-1 earlier this month.

Looking back at the 2018 season, with three regular season games left on its schedule, the Terrapins held a putrid .064 mark. By season’s end, Maryland held a .103 mark, aided by a .145 shot percentage across the final ten games.

Struggling to convert on offense at a clip that matches its level of play paints a similar image of what the latest national championship team faced. That translates to its defense too, as the two teams produced six shutouts up to the same point in each season.

Maryland altered its defensive scheme following a loss to Georgetown, abandoning the typical 4-3-3 formation for a 3-4-3 lineup. This change allowed for the Terps to still be a force on offense without losing its defensive integrity.

They have since returned to a 4-3-3, but during the five-game stretch between the Michigan game (9/17) and the Wisconsin game (10/3), the Terrapins gave up just three goals. They pitched two shutouts during that span and allowed an average of 8.6 shots per game en route to a 3-1-1 record, compiling seven points in the Big Ten standings in the process.

The confidence on the defensive end didn’t fade despite reverting back to its original formation, as Maryland dominated Northwestern with a +22 shot differential before stringing together consecutive shutouts.

One of those shutouts was against Pacific.

The 3-0 win made it three straight games with single-digit shots allowed by the defense. Over the course of the season, Maryland has limited its opponents to single-digit shots ten times compared to six up to this point of the season in 2018.

In the match, Maryland used a flawless second half to keep Pacific scoreless, pouring it on between the 50th and 60th minute while also maintaining a presence on defense by allowing just five shots.

The offense scored all three goals in the span of six minutes in the second period, providing a glimpse of what Maryland can accomplish by producing for a full 90 minutes.

“That was a vintage Maryland attacking spell,” Cirovski said. “I think both the confidence of some of the players, that quality, is starting to come through.”

Walking away from a complete second-half performance versus Pacific, Maryland has the confidence to replicate that heading into an important stretch of Big Ten matchups.

The Terrapins currently sit tied for third in the Big Ten standings with ten points, trailing two of its final three opponents of the season.

The team Maryland holds an advantage over is Michigan State, its upcoming foe on Friday. The final two regular season matches come against 2020 Big Ten Tournament runner-up Penn State on Oct. 26, and preseason No. 2 Indiana on Oct. 31.

Finishing out the season strong could give the Terps home-field advantage in the conference tournament. Not only that, but it can finally show off what the team has been trying to crack open all year as they head into postseason play in November.

It’s a proving point that a 5-5-3 team from 2018 faced before asserting its dominance on the rest of the nation, closing the season out with an 8-1-1 record.

With his senior year coming to a close, St. Martin leads a Maryland team that has gone through similar highs and lows as in 2018. The road to getting there has been littered with challenges, from a worldwide pandemic to an injury-ridden spring season.

Even in-season obstacles were prevalent, with the offense struggling to find its identity and the defense undergoing a significant overhaul from the championship-winning formation implemented by Cirovski.

Still, reaching the same destination as in 2018 is within reach for the Terrapins. While it has been an unorthodox journey towards getting to the home stretch, the same remains true as the season approaches the end — it’s time to leave everything out on the pitch.

“We have a really good locker room, we have some outstanding leaders that lead by example,” Cirovski said. “But they’re also leading by supporting their teammates and I think when you have a good locker room you got a chance to win every game.”