Maryland men’s soccer’s quest to conquer its Big Ten Tournament woes came to an abrupt halt in the first round as the No. 2-seed Terrapins fell to the No. 7-seed Northwestern Wildcats in a penalty shootout.
Maryland and Northwestern duked it out for 110 minutes without a score despite the Terps getting off 12 more shots. The upset-minded Wildcats made three straight penalty kicks to keep its season alive, whereas Maryland missed two in a row after starting 2-of-3.
“We just kind of took it to the chest,” defender Nick Richardson said. “I think we’re rebounding as best as we can and we’re really looking forward to just playing in the tournament and getting back to playing games.”
While extra hardware is always nice, the main goal has arrived — winning a national title. Members of the most recent national championship in College Park are ready to make a final push to the top and end their collegiate career where it started.
“I was a part of that team, but I wasn’t as strong of a leader as I am now,” defender Brett St. Martin said. “Taking one game at a time and then we’ll have a chance to keep our momentum going.”
The road to Cary starts Thursday at 7 p.m. with the Terps hosting the Northeast Conference champion LIU Sharks. It could be the final game of the season at Ludwig Field, where Maryland hasn’t lost this season (8-0-2).
LIU Sharks (11-4-4, 7-2 NEC)
2020 record: 3-1-4, 3-1-3
Head coach Michael Mordocco coached the Sharks through the merger between the campuses of LIU Post and LIU-Brooklyn. He finished his first season at LIU Post with an East Coast Conference championship before the merger moved Mordocco up to the Division I level. Over his three seasons coaching in the Northeast Conference, all but one of Mordocco’s postseason matches have gone to a penalty shootout. The two years prior to this season ended in penalties, but Mordocco and the Sharks conquered its misfortunes this year as they won two penalty shootouts en route to its 16th NCAA Tournament berth.
Mordocco’s overall record across his four seasons sits at 38-17-11. He has experience coaching all across the Northeast, making stops as an assistant coach with Stony Brook, SUNY Oneonta, UConn and three years as associate head coach at UMass.
This season the Sharks saw success. After winning their final two regular season games against Mount St. Mary’s and St. Francis Brooklyn, the Sharks defeated both No. 4-seed Bryant and No. 2-seed St. Francis Brooklyn to win the Northwest Conference Tournament.
Players to know
Sophomore forward Emil Jaaskelainen, 6-foot-2, No. 9 — There is no player in LIU’s lineup more feared than Jaaskelainen. Hailing from Bolton, England, the sophomore has tallied 15 goals on the season, good for second in the nation. He hit his stride in October, recording two braces and a hat trick while failing to score in just one of six games. In the NEC tournament, he made both of his penalty kicks.
Junior goalkeeper Demetri Skoumbakis, 6-foot-1, No. 1— In net is NEC Goalkeeper of the Year Skoumbakis, who came away with the game-winning save against St. Francis to advance to the NCAA Tournament. He is the only keeper in the conference to allow less than a goal per game as he garnered a 0.846 average. Six shutouts helped make his case to go along with 65 saves.
Sophomore forward Assane Ben Fall, 6-foot-2, No. 25 — While Jaaskelainen is the most productive forward on the team, Ben Fall has been a not-so-close second, yet still warrants attention. His five goals are second on the team, but he has really turned it on as of late. Ben Fall has scored in three of the last four games for the Sharks, including the lone goal in the NEC championship game.
Ball movement. The highest scoring team in the NEC with one of the top goal scorers in the country has to be a well-oiled machine from top to bottom in order to succeed the way they do. The Sharks do an excellent job of finding opportune lanes and feeding slashers, making them one of the top-25 best teams in the country in assists per game. Five Sharks occupy the top-10 assist leaders in the NEC.
Physical and emotional fatigue. This isn’t a weakness regarding the season-long outlook of the Sharks, but more so a recent development that could affect Thursday’s match. While Maryland has worked on rehabilitation with the extended break, LIU has played in games up until Nov. 14.
Over the weekend, the Sharks played 220 minutes and had to sit through two grueling penalty shootouts. That undoubtedly has an effect on the physical and emotional wellbeing of the players and coaching staff. Will the dramatic end of the season run cause the Sharks to fizzle out?
Three things to watch
1. How will the Terps rebound? Last Sunday’s first round exit to Northwestern was the lowlight of the season for Maryland. It couldn’t have come at a worse time with the Terps battling for a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now fully entrenched in the postseason, Maryland will have to have to put their Big Ten Tournament performance behind them.
“I think the players have been re-energized,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We met as a group, we met with the leadership council on our team, and you can see just the energy and enthusiasm and excitement are back.”
2. How impactful will The Crew be? Ludwig Field is one of the toughest environments in college soccer and on Thursday night in a win-or-go-home game, The Crew will surely be at its rowdiest. Just how much will Maryland’s dedicated student section affect the play of the Sharks? On the flip side, in potentially the final home game of the season, how much extra motivation will Maryland carry on the pitch?
“I think it’ll get our mojo very high, just having a very positive influence that The Crew has and that Ludwig brings,” Richardson said. “If we can get off to a hot start I think we’re a very, very dangerous team.”
3. Can Maryland force the shutout? Goalkeeper Niklas Neumann has been a major piece for the Terps this season and his most recent two-game shutout streak could be a sign of things to come. In 2018, Maryland didn’t allow a goal en route to a national title. With Neumann playing some of his best soccer of the season, it may not be too far out of the picture to expect a similarly dominant defensive stretch in the NCAA Tournament.
“We got knocked out [of the Big Ten Tournament] early at that point and had about a ten day period before our first game,” Cirovski said. “We’re hoping that we can get off to a good start against a very tough opponent.”