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Maryland men’s soccer preview vs. No. 18 Charlotte

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The Terps start their season with a challenging game against the 49ers.

Just 116 days after losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Maryland men’s soccer will be back in action to commence its 2021 fall season against No. 18 Charlotte.

It’s a quick, yet welcome turnaround for head coach Sasho Cirovski and his squad as Maryland looks to put an injury-riddled season behind them.

“There’s a lot of energy and excitement for Thursday’s opening game,” Cirovski said. “Walking out to Ludwig Field with the stands there and the anticipation of getting our unbelievable student body, The Crew, in the stands, along with the community out to the games is a welcome sight.”

The energy will be back in full swing on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. as the Terps aim for a successful first outing of the fall season. The game will air on BTN Plus.

Charlotte 49ers (0-0)

2020-21 record: 6-3-2 (6-1 Conference USA)

Head coach Kevin Langan has been tremendous during his tenure with the 49ers, which started in 2012. Since his promotion to the head gig following a few years as associate head coach, Langan has guide Charlotte to a .681 win percentage and has missed just one NCAA Tournament since taking over the program. Despite the prolonged success, Langan has just one conference championship to his name and has not made it past the second round of the College Cup in his team’s eight visits.

Players to know

Redshirt senior midfielder Joe Brito is a two-time All-Conference USA recipient (third team, 2019, first team, 2020-21) and was just named to the preseason all-conference team. The star midfielder placed third on the team in goals scored with two, with one being the game-tying score to force Charlotte’s NCAA Tournament matchup into extra time.

Redshirt senior defender Delasi Batse is shaping out to be the leader on the defense with the departure Patrick Hogan, who signed with the Charleston Battery of the USL in May. Batse went toe for toe with Hogan in minutes played last season, forming an efficient defensive duo in the process. The Durham native was named to the All-Conference USA second team for his strong play and his prospects for the upcoming year are sky-high.

Senior forwards Preston Popp and Alex Willis are two late bloomers for the 49ers that will be crucial for coach Langan’s offense. Both were named to the preseason All-Conference USA team for their promising scoring prowess from the prior year.

Popp broke out with a team-high six goals on a .286 shot percentage. He was a co-winner of the Golden Boot in conference play with five goals, earning him second-team All-Conference USA honors.

Willis came over from Northern Kentucky last season and rewarded Charlotte with another key cog on the offense. He started all 11 games for the 49ers, earning recognition on the first-team All-Conference USA team by tallying three goals and two assists.

Strength

Defense. If there’s anything to look out for with this strong Charlotte squad, it’s the team’s stellar shutdown defense. Last season, the 49ers surrendered an average of just 0.91 goals per game through 11 total contests. Opponents had only 39 collective shots on target against the Charlotte defense in 2020 and it shouldn't be any easier to score goals on this program this season.

Weakness

Discipline. While Charlotte’s defense certainly was up to the task during a pandemic-filled season, that defense came at a price. The 49ers committed 155 fouls over the course of 11 games, meaning that the program averaged over 14 fouls per game. Charlotte racked up a total of 25 yellow cards last season, too.

Three things to watch

1. How will the goalkeeper position shape out? When sophomore goalkeeper Niklas Neumann went down with a season-ending injury three games into the year, the team turned to true freshman Jamie Lowell to man the net. Lowell started the rest of the way, notching an average of 1.66 goals allowed and vaulting Maryland back into tournament consideration after a rough start. Now with 2019 All-Big Ten second-teamer Neumann back, how will the balance of playing time shape out for the Terrapins?

“Both of them will get an opportunity to play early in the year and we’ll see how it goes,” Cirovski said. “I feel like we have two starters in both of them and we have equal confidence in both them that when they’re between the pipes we have a chance to win.”

2. Were three exhibition games enough? With a team still not quite 100%, building on chemistry with different units, whether in practice or scrimmages is crucial. Last year that’s all Maryland had, but this year with less and less COVID restrictions, the Terps were able to play three exhibition matches, of which they went 2-0-1. The preparation for the long road ahead starts at practice, but for a team not fully healthy just yet, was the slate of preseason games enough for Maryland to work out any of its kinks ahead of Thursday’s season opener?

“Learning our press and getting the younger guys bought into how we play was the biggest thing these exhibitions did for us this season,” senior defender Brett St. Martin said. “[It’s] definitely refreshing to have preseason games ... we took a couple games to really get into our stride and then you can see after those first three games that we really hit a stride.”

3. Can Maryland’s chemistry set the tone? Without a ton of roster turmoil heading into this season, Maryland has its eyes set on bigger and better results than the previous two seasons following its national championship victory. It’s all about the bonding of the team, not about individual play, as relayed by defender Nick Richardson.

“We all have a little outing before, like a little team barbecue and I think it was one of the years where everybody was talking to everybody,” Richardson said. “You usually see little cliques within a team, but there was none of that. I think all the new guys have done a really good job of buying in and kind of understanding what the needs are and really putting emphasis on reaching out to everybody, bring in people that may not have experienced anything like this before and keeping them within the family.”