After picking up a big win on the road in the first round of the Big Ten tournament against Northwestern, fifth-seeded Maryland men’s soccer returns back to Ludwig Field for a matchup with first-seeded Indiana in the semifinals.
The Terps (10-6-2, 3-3-2 Big Ten) have likely already locked up a spot in the NCAA tournament, but are in a position to earn a better spot than the No. 11 seed they were handed in last year’s tournament.
Though Maryland lost in the same matchup — with the same seeding as well — in last season’s Big Ten tournament semifinal, this time, it has home advantage. And the Terps have defended their home turf admirably this season, boasting an 8-3 record in matches played in College Park.
“Playing Indiana away, home, neutral, it’s always tough,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “I think this game will be a very hard game for us and we’re looking forward to it. And we’re glad it’s at Ludwig.”
The match will kick off at 7 p.m. on Friday night, with the victor advancing to face the winner of Penn State/Michigan in the tournament final.
What happened last time
Much was made of the first match between Maryland and Indiana this season, with the Hoosiers coming into that Oct. 18 match riding a 17-game win streak in Big Ten regular season matches.
But the Terps asserted themselves early and often, with freshman forward David Kovacic scoring a goal in the 15th minute.
Maryland then scored two goals less than two minutes apart from each other. Junior forward Eric Matzelevich ripped a shot from point blank in the 27th minute before senior defender Johannes Bergmann put a header in net to give the Terps a commanding 3-0 lead before the 30 minute mark.
The Terps didn’t look back from that point on, holding the Hoosiers without a shot on goal for the entirety of the match en route to handing them their first Big Ten regular season loss since 2015.
“Our team defending was as good as its been all year,” Cirovski said after the match. “We put in a full 90 minute shift, it was a terrific performance and I think tonight is a pivotal game in our season.”
What’s happened since
It was a return to form for the Hoosiers following their humbling at the hands of Cirovski & Co., winning each of their next four matches, while outscoring their opponents by a combined margin of a 14-2.
The Terps followed up their biggest win of the season with another strong performance over a ranked opponent, defeating No. 24 Yale to improve to 8-4-2 on the season.
A 2-0 win over Ohio State thereafter had the Terps in position to contend for the Big Ten regular season title with two games remaining, but losses to Penn State and Michigan dropped them to the fifth spot in the conference standings.
After taking down Northwestern in Evanston in the quarterfinals, the Terps and Hoosiers find themselves meeting once again in College Park.
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Niklas Neumann string together clean sheets with raised stakes? The freshman keeper from Germany has shown that he’s capable of keeping the sheet clean this season, shutting out opponents on nine separate occasions in 15 starts, including a clean sheet in his Big Ten tournament debut.
“As a goalkeeper you always have a lot of responsibilities in every game, so it’s not really a big difference,” Neumann said of his taste of postseason play. “For me its not that I feel nervous or a special kind of nervous just because it’s the Big Ten [tournament] games. I know it’s important, but at the same time I just try to do what I always do.”
But with his longest streak of shutouts this season sitting at four games, a similar stretch of clean sheets (ala Dayne St. Clair last season) would be massive in the team’s effort toward returning to the College Cup.
2. Can the Terps maintain their strong box defending? One of the key storylines entering last week’s match against Northwestern was whether the Terps could capably defending against lofted balls played into the box.
And, for all the team’s talk of improvement in the week leading up, the Maryland backline held firm in the air, with Bergmann and sophomore defender Brett St. Martin heading balls away from danger often enough to force Northwestern to abandon that approach. But the team knows that one performance won’t expunge that weakness from the scouting report.
“We’ve just gotta keep that same mentality,” junior defender Ben Di Rosa said. “One good game’s not gonna cut it. We’ve just gotta each game take it up a notch and kinda realize that every game could be our last, and box defending has been one of focuses the last couple of weeks so we just wanna be really good in that area.”
3. Will Maryland bring consistency to the pitch? The team has certainly seen its fair share of ups and downs in 2019, with the highs being punctuated by the lows, and back and forth all season. But when the Terps are playing unified ball across the pitch, they can be a tough team to beat, it’s just a question of whether they can maintain that consistency of play across five, six or seven matches.
“I think our guys must have liked the script so much last year that they just wanna repeat it again,” Cirovski said. “I’m not sure many top teams in the country have lost three significant starters for the year, and to have the bullseye of a national champion on your back the whole year, so I love the fact that our guys have found a way to grind through and put [us] in good position to where we are now.”