It was all about whose defense would cave first between Maryland men’s soccer and No. 18 Charlotte, as both offenses went back and forth in keeping up the pressure. That intensity finally paid off for the Terrapins in the 39th minute.
Freshman midfielder Richie Nichols sent a cross from right midfield to forwards Jacen Russell-Rowe and Caden Stafford. As Stafford initially gathered the through ball, the freshman dished a give and go to Russell-Rowe, who lobbed a perfect ball to Stafford over the defenders heads.
From there, Stafford took one touch and flicked the ball past goalkeeper Daniel Kuzemka with his outside right foot to put the Terps on the board and send the crowd into a frenzy.
“That was like one of those moments you blackout because you’re so happy,” Stafford said.
It was a defining moment for the freshman Stafford, and carried home the preseason optimism for Maryland’s youth movement as the home team walked away with the upset victory, 1-0.
I thought we showed a lot of grit and this is the kind of fiber I want our team to be made of,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We were not happy as a team over the last two years with the way that we conceded goals and and gifted teams some goals, so getting a shutout in the first game I think is a very big deal for our team at this point in time.”
Despite an hour long delay, Ludwig Field was still rocking from the opening kickoff as Maryland welcomed back The Crew for the first time in nearly two years.
“My love affair with The Crew and our team’s love affair with The Crew is real,” Cirovski said. “They are a part of our team and to be able to have them back with us again, it was wonderful.”
It was a track meet from the start, as Maryland and Charlotte traded possessions from end to end. The 49ers got more from its offense in the first ten minutes of play as two corner kicks epitomized the road team’s aggressiveness in the early going.
A particular opportunity in the ninth minute was set up by forward Alex Willis. Willis’s cross to the middle sailed past goalkeeper Jamie Lowell, but Maryland pressured the pass enough to blind forward Preston Popp from scoring on the wide-open net.
Charlotte continued to control the tempo, but off of a turnover, forward Joshua Bolma cut around the left side to find midfielder Ben Bender in the box. Bender had no room to shoot, but Bolma and the Terps kept the intensity going with another opportunity in the 31st minute that was thwarted by the 49ers yet again.
The momentum began to shift at around the 20th minute, as Bolma and Bender continued to test Charlotte’s defense. Despite the slow start, Maryland held the shot advantage, although two of them were airmails well past the student section.
Defender Nick Richardson kept the ball rolling as he gave Maryland the best opportunity of the night in the 24th minute. The redshirt junior dribbled past four Charlotte defenders and fired a grounder to the lower left corner. However, a tremendous diving save by Kuzemka kept the Terps off the board.
After a brief injury timeout, Charlotte began to regain some momentum with multiple set pieces orchestrated by midfielder Joe Brito, but the stingy defense from defenders Chris Rindov and Brett St. Martin continued to frustrate the visitors.
Still, the intensity by Maryland’s offense was the story of the half. The 39th minute goal by Stafford was all Maryland would come up with, but seven shots compared to Charlotte’s three set the tone for a first half controlled by the Terrapins.
Charlotte came out of the gates hungry, with Popp firing off a breakaway in the 48th minute that was ultimately deflected by a trailing Rindov. But the Terps tilted the possession arrow back in its direction as time ticked away.
Richardson sent a cross to Bender in the 54th minute, but Bender’s header found an offside Bolma, negating Maryland’s second goal of the match. Bolma made another highlight that couldn’t produce results on the next offensive pursuit, as his superb toe-touches found Bender on the right side, in which the sophomore pushed the ball too far to the left.
The defense continued to stand its ground, leading to more and more offensive chances for the Terrapins. Maryland lived in 49er territory, as Bolma and forward Hunter George fired in shots 10 and 11 for the Terrapins with just under 30 minutes remaining.
“There were definitely some spaces open to the fact that they had a five-back and I think it kind of allowed us to try and play it around,” Rindov said. “It’s definitely easy when you have the quality of players up ahead to just play the ball and let them kind of operate and do what they do best.”
Shot No. 12 via Richardson was deflected by defender Ethan Sawdon in the 71st minute before a one-on-one breakaway by Stafford was deterred by an unselfish dish to George, which was ruled offside.
Stafford and Sawdon began to jaw at one another following a tie up just after the missed opportunity by the lone goal scorer, which led to two yellow cards for the Terps (Stafford, St. Martin) and a second yellow for Sawdon, segueing into an 11-on-10 match the rest of the way.
The chippy play continued when the Terps were rewarded a penalty kick for a foul by midfielder Kameron Lacey, but midfielder Joe Suchecki missed it low and to the right as Kuzemka made his sixth save of the night.
The strong defensive effort by Charlotte limited Maryland to the lone goal in the 39th minute and kept them hanging in there, but Maryland’s defense was a bit stingier and its offense was a tad quicker as they rose to the occasion to start off the season with a win.
Three things to know
1. The Terps looked fresh. Cirovski cycled through 16 players in tonight’s matchup. Maybe a sign of keeping his players healthy after an injury-riddled spring season. Maybe a way for Cirovski to feel out his rotation and see which players fit well with which. Whatever the reason, it allowed Maryland to keep the pressure on all night, as Charlotte couldn’t stay with the Terps’ speed in the open field. The chemistry was on full display regardless of the unit on the field and it was a welcome sight for a team loaded with talent.
“There’s so many quality players, it’s hard not to have that chemistry,” Stafford said.
2. Joshua Bolma made some noise. After not receiving NCAA eligibility in his freshman year with the Terps, he had to sit back and ingest every bit of Maryland soccer’s regime before making his debut and what a debut it was. Bolma was a catalyst in producing a fast-paced offense from the Terrapins. Him, alongside spring standout Bender should make for an interesting offensive duo that may be the quickest in the country.
3. Maryland’s defense bunkered down and threw away the key. Charlotte had its moments of offensive juice, but all in all, it was Maryland’s defense that completely shut down the 49ers, as evidence by just one save made by Lowell. St. Martin, Rindov and Alex Nitzl forced away any and all Charlotte attacks and didn’t let the road team garner any momentum despite rewarding them with eight corner kicks.