The No. 8 Maryland men’s soccer team was a shell of itself when it hit the road to play the top-ranked Georgetown Hoyas on Sept. 11. Most notably on defense, the Terrapins struggled to contain the Hoyas en route to allowing 21 total shots in the loss.
Despite a three-goal blip against UMBC, the Terrapins had shut out two of its first four opponents, but the collapse versus Georgetown hinted that the defense needed some major reworking.
Head coach Sasho Cirovski looked to inject a spark into the backline, and changing up the defensive scheme did just the trick to make a huge impact.
Transitioning to a 3-4-3 with mainstay defenders Brett St. Martin and Chris Rindov being joined by starting lineup newcomer William Kulvik, the Terps got off to a solid start to their conference schedule with a 2-1 victory over Michigan on Sept. 17.
Although it wasn’t flawless, with Michigan forward Derick Broche ending the shutout in the 73rd minute, the new look Maryland defense limited the Wolverines to just six shots in a much-needed rebound from the disappointing showdown versus Georgetown.
Growing pains were to be expected with the formation change, but the effort and heart shown by the Terps would only be the start of their recent string of success.
That heart showed its true colors when sophomore goalkeeper Jamie Lowell exited in the 66th minute against High Point. Junior goalie Niklas Neumann was then thrust into action up one goal, leading to the desperate Panthers to pressure the Terrapin’s defense more than it had all night.
The Panthers saw a chink in Maryland’s armor and attacked, nearly swinging the momentum in its direction had it not been for the Terrapins’ improved firepower on the defensive end.
Neumann was caught off guard on a strike by the Panthers in the 78th minute, but Rindov came soaring in in front of the goal and kicked the ball out and over the end line to fend off High Point’s most legitimate shot at scoring all game.
That heart and determination from Rindov translated to the rest of the team as they bunkered down the rest of the way to earn its second victory with its three-man backline.
“We’re developing stronger relationships on the field,” Cirovski said. “I think it’s allowing us to be a little bit more fluid in our movement.”
With two games worth of experience under its belt, Maryland’s new defense faced its biggest test yet as they hit the road to play a feisty Ohio State program last Friday.
The pillars of the defense remained true, with the trio of starting defenders playing every minute. But Neumann’s impact was the catalyst in the team’s inspired effort.
Facing a much more aggressive Buckeye attack in the second half, Neumann saw eight shots in the closing 45 minutes of play. Ohio State was able to register a goal, albeit off of a penalty kick, but Neumann made several key saves to prevent an equalizer late.
While Neumann was the standout hero, the rest of the defense played on its heels for practically the entire second half and held strong. It’s all about a collective team effort.
“I think we have a very talented team and I feel like every game, somebody gets the opportunity to step up and use their strengths wisely,” Neumann said.
Maryland’s next test lies in a team that matches its defensive prowess. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights have suffered just one loss this season, a matchup in which starting goalkeeper Oren Asher was absent due to a non-coronavirus-related illness.
The Terrapins can expect Asher to be back in net on Tuesday, where the sophomore will search for shutout number six on the young season. He isn’t alone either, as the Scarlet Knights boast a tremendous backline filled with polished players such as Thomas DeVizio and Vincent Borden.
It will be a true battle of Goliath vs. Goliath. Maryland and Rutgers are both top-three in the Big Ten in goals allowed per game (0.89 for Maryland and 0.67 for Rutgers). Furthermore, the defense has translated into offense for both teams, as both programs are ranked in the top three in offensive efficiency in the conference as well.
What it will ultimately come down to, however, is which team can hold down the fort the longest as patience and poise will play a huge role down the stretch in this one.