Believe it or not, after all its hardships this season, Maryland men’s soccer is among the final eight teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament.
This team started 0-2-2 and went over 470 minutes without scoring a single goal. It battled through one of the toughest schedules in the country to escape with a 7-6-3 regular season record. And through two games in the big dance, the Terps have been nearly perfect. They have consecutive 2-0 wins over North Carolina State and No. 6-seed Duke under their belt, and Maryland is playing its best soccer of the season.
The Terrapins are going to need their best soccer on Friday, as they’ll face off against one of the best teams in the country. In Lexington, a matchup against No. 3-seed Kentucky awaits for a chance to clinch a spot in the College Cup, where the final four teams will play for the national championship in Santa Barbara.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET and can be watched on SEC Network Plus.
No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats (19-1-1, 7-1 Conference USA)
2017 record: 8-6-4 (4-2-2 C-USA)
Head coach Johan Cedergren has brought the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament after an off year in 2017. Under his leadership, the team made three consecutive postseason appearances from 2014-16, including earning a national seed two seasons ago. Before taking over in Lexington, Cedergren was the head coach at Dartmouth in the Ivy League. He led the Big Green to the NCAA Tournament in each of his five seasons.
Players to know
Junior forward JJ Williams, No. 7. One year ago as a sophomore, Williams tied the team-lead in goals scored with three on the season. But Williams has broken out in a big way in 2018, and not only does he lead the team in scoring, he’s one of the most lethal finishers in the nation. Williams’ 18 goals and 44 points both lead Conference USA and rank third among all players in Division I soccer.
Sophomore midfielder Kalil ElMedkhar, No. 21. Williams has gotten most of the hype this year, but ElMedkhar has put together a great season of his own in just his sophomore year for the Wildcats. With 11 goals and 10 assists, he ranks third in the conference and tied for ninth in the nation in points with 32.
Sophomore goalkeeper Enrique Facusse, No. 24. A starter since arriving on campus, Facusse already has a First Team All-Conference USA achievement under his belt, and his 0.89 goals-against average was second in the conference. But in his sophomore season, Facusse is smashing that figure. In 21 starts, he’s allowed am 0.47 goals-against average with a .851 save percentage, which rank third and 10th in the country, respectively.
Offense. Kentucky’s attack has been elite this season, and the stats certainly back that up. The Wildcats have scored 49 goals, which leads Conference USA and ranks fourth in the nation. To put that in comparison, Maryland has scored just 26 times in one less match. Williams is obviously the biggest player to keep tabs on, but ElMedkhar and the rest of the team can score in bunches on their own, especially if defenders are locked in on containing Williams.
Experience. Kentucky has been great this season, and its performance in the NCAA Tournament has been terrific thus far. But for the vast majority of the team, this is the only run they’ve experienced. There are just five upperclassmen on the team, and the most of starters are freshmen and sophomores. Talent can outweigh experience in many situations, but as the season nears its end, the team’s lack of tests this season could loom large.
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland contain JJ Williams? It’s unlikely that the Terrapins’ defense can completely shut down Williams, but containing him is an attainable goal. While Kentucky boasts a large number of weapons on attack, the offense runs through him. If Maryland is to have any chance of winning, it’ll need to make sure that Williams is bottled up.
2. Can the attack beat Enrique Facusse? In 21 matches this season, the Wildcats have allowed just 10 goals. A ton of that success is due to the outstanding play of Facusse, whose .841 save percentage ranks 10th in the nation. Maryland has been offensively challenged at times this season, but the team has scored in nine straight games, including four goals in two NCAA Tournament matches thus far.
3. Does experience play a factor? The Terrapins have been battle-tested this season, facing a grueling schedule and outlasting all but seven other teams in the nation to this point. Not only has this season been a grind, but Maryland has been a staple in postseason play for nearly all of Sasho Cirovski’s tenure. Players like Amar Sejdic, Sebastian Elney, Dayne St. Clair and others know the challenge of the NCAA Tournament, and their experience could be crucial against the Wildcats.