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Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals: No. 2-seed Maryland vs. No. 7-seed Northwestern preview

The Terps will open the postseason against the Wildcats.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

The No. 10 Maryland men’s soccer team ended its regular season on a high note last Sunday, defeating then-No. 22 Indiana on the back of the season’s marquee moment with defender Ryan Blumberg scoring his first career goal.

Blumberg’s goal a few minutes into the second period set the tone for a dominant finish for the Terrapins. A second score from midfielder Ben Bender padded Maryland’s lead, allowing goalkeeper Niklas Neumann and the defense to coast to another shutout.

“The way we came out after that halftime talk with Sash was excellent,” defender Chris Rindov said. “There was really just a feel of energy. Once Blumberg got that first goal it even lifted another level after that. I think we just keep building off that and that’s just what we’re going to try and bring through every postseason game.”

The victory helped Maryland secure the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament, setting up a home quarterfinal matchup against No. 7 seed Northwestern on Sunday at 1 p.m on BTN Plus.

“We’re in a good position, but we know we got to still win every single game,” forward Justin Gielen said. “We got to come out and fight whoever’s on the field against us and so we are not taking any days off.”

Last time out, Maryland won 3-1 at Ludwig Field. The Wildcats will once again make the trip to College Park where the Terps haven’t lost this season.

What happened last time

Head coach Sasho Cirovski faced off against his former assistant Russell Payne for the first time on Oct. 8, but it wasn’t a pretty return to College Park for Payne. Northwestern struggled to get past Maryland aside from a 15th-minute goal, losing 3-1.

The Terrapin held the largest shot margin of the season in this one with 22 more shots attempted. Forwards Gielen and Jacen Russell-Rowe found the back of the net before midfielder Malcolm Johnston made it three straight goals by virtue of an 80th-minute penalty kick.

It was a huge victory for the Terrapins as they were coming off of a demoralizing loss to Wisconsin. Added onto that, prior to Gielen’s 35th-minute score, the Terps had gone a dismal 267 minutes without a goal.

The three-goal outburst was the closest Maryland had come to that point of the season in matching its team-high four goals against UMBC at the beginning of the season.

What has happened since

Maryland followed up the Northwestern match with a solid four-win stretch over its last five games, including three shutouts against Delaware, Pacific and Indiana.

A crucial win on Oct. 22 in East Lansing put Maryland in a prime position to control its own destiny in the Big Ten. But on Oct. 26, a crushing loss to Penn State after leading 2-0 ended up being the difference-maker between the one and two seeds.

For the Wildcats, they had to scratch and claw in order to make the Big Ten Tournament. After splitting the next two Big Ten games, a huge matchup versus Michigan State came along to help decide the bottom tier of the standings.

If Northwestern were to lose and Ohio State was to prevail over Rutgers, the Wildcats could have been on the outside looking in. However, the Buckeyes came up short, while Northwestern defeated Michigan State 3-1, climbing over the Spartans and taking the seventh spot.

Three things to watch

  1. Can Maryland begin the road to exacting its Big Ten Tournament woes? Despite the myriad of hardware for the Terrapin program, a Big Ten Tournament title has eluded them for some time now. After winning three straight championships from 2014-2016, Maryland hasn’t clinched a title game berth since then, finishing either fourth and fifth in the standings to further its conference struggles. This season, Maryland clinched its highest placement in the Big Ten table since 2016, possibly providing a glimpse into the potential noise the Terrapins can make in the conference tournament.

“The Big Ten Tournament is obviously very valuable in itself, but it also gets you into tournament mode and understand the finality of each match,” Cirovski said. “We need to make sure we are playing our most focused and concentrated soccer of the year and I think coming off of last Sunday was a good catapult into this weekend.”

2. Will the rematch pan out similarly to last time? Northwestern was heavily outmatched by a fiery Terrapin offense in the matchup from early October. This matchup came off the heels of Maryland’s longest scoring drought of the season, but the offense righted its issues with a three-goal outburst. A +22 shot differential further separated the two on paper and the product on the field was no better. Maryland should have no problem finding success against Northwestern once again, but it still leaves some room for alterations.

“The game becomes a bit more of a chess match,” Gielen said. Cirovski added, “I think both teams are playing slightly different than even a month ago. I think they’ve switched their formation and style a little bit and we’ve changed some things as well.”

3. Ben Bender is going for six in a row. It has been a phenomenal five-game scoring stretch for Bender, garnering the sophomore Big Ten Midfielder of the Year honors on Friday. Although he didn’t score on his six attempts against Northwestern last time out, this matchup presents a tremendous opportunity for Bender to make it six games in a row. The middling Wildcat defense will be fighting for its season in this one, but Bender should certainly have a handful of moments in which he can break through.