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Maryland men’s soccer vs Penn State preview: The season opener

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The Terps open up the 2021 season with a tough road matchup against the Nittany Lions.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

After a delayed start to the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland men’s soccer is back in action and ready to take on its first opponent of the season in Penn State on the road Friday evening.

The Terps will play a total of 10 games this regular season, with two of those matchups coming against Penn State. Looking back at the 2019 season, the Nittany Lions finished ahead of Maryland in the Big Ten standings. It’ll be a tough task for the Terps right out of the gates to begin the 2021 campaign.

“Needless to say, I’m excited, the team is excited to finally play a game,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “I think this first game is just about getting out and playing. Obviously, we’re trying to get three points. But we’re also trying to learn about ourselves and see exactly where we are and start to make any adjustments so that we can continue to get stronger from week to week.”

There was some good news for Maryland on Wednesday that will pay dividends this opening weekend. It was officially announced that Ben Di Rosa, who was taken as the No. 44 overall pick by New York City FC in the MLS SuperDraft, will be available for the Terps for the first two games of the season. His return will have an immediate positive impact on the lineup.

“He’s just a veteran, super seasoned, super solid back there,” forward Eric Matzelevich said. “And I think, regardless of how good he is playing, he’s just going to be just a leader back there and an absolute stud of a fortress.”

After the Terps’ matchup against the Nittany Lions, Maryland heads back home to take on Ohio State on Feb. 27 and then it travels on the road once again to take on Rutgers.

Friday’s matchup with Penn State begins at 6 p.m. and will air on Big Ten Plus. Let’s take a look at what Maryland is up against in the season opener.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2019 season: 12-4-3 (6-1-1, Big Ten)

Head coach Jeff Cook is entering his third season at the helm of Penn State’s men’s soccer program. In 2019, Cook led the Nittany Lions to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014 and earned a first-round bye with a No. 15 national seeding. The team finished the 2019 season ranked No. 18, which the Nittany Lions’ first final-season ranking since 2013. Cook has Penn State headed towards a positive trend since becoming the head coach and the Nittany Lions look poised to make some more noise in the Big Ten in the 2021 season.

Players to Know

Sophomore forward Liam Butts (No. 7) — With Penn State’s top points producer in Aaron Molloy gone, it will be Butts who carries the bulk of the offensive load for the Nittany Lions heading into the 2021 season. Even though he was just a freshman in 2019, Butts stepped onto the scene brilliantly with his play. He was tied for the team-lead in goals scored with nine and also netted five game-winning goals, a mark that was the most in the Big Ten. Butts was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team in 2019 and is expected to take another step forward in his young yet strong career so far.

“Liam Butts is their most dangerous attacking player, and he’s certainly someone that broke onto the scene in 2019 and he’s a known quality player right now,” Cirovski said. “And certainly, you know, we will have to make sure we try to neutralize him in the flow of play.”

Junior midfielder Seth Kuhn (No. 10) — Kuhn figures to be another factor for the Nittany Lions on both ends of the pitch. In his sophomore season in 2019, Kuhn played in all 19 games and started 18 of them in the midfield. He accumulated the second-most assists on the team with five and notched a total of seven points on the season. His 22 attempted shots also ranked the fourth-highest on the Nittany Lions as well. Kuhn figures to see more time on the field this season and should get his fair share of looks when the Terps come to town on Friday for the opener.

Redshirt senior defenseman Brandon Hackenberg (No. 3) — Hackenberg will be a key cog on the defensive end for Cook’s squad. He is one of the more experienced players on the field for the Nittany Lions, as he has played in 45 career games and started 36 of them on the backline for Penn State. His play has contributed to 12 shutouts over his career. In 2019, Hackenberg earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors and earned Third-Team All-North Region honors from the United Soccer Coaches. Hackenberg will be tasked with stopping the Terps’ offensive push and should see a lot of playing time against a strong Maryland front.

Strength

Shots per game. The Nittany Lions are not afraid to get the ball to the net as they averaged 13.4 shots per game in 2019. That mark resulted in Penn State averaging exactly two goals per game. We may see more of this in 2021 and it will be interesting to see how aggressive Penn State is when attempting to get shots on target.

Weakness

Discipline. Penn State is a very aggressive team that looks to attack, but sometimes that leads to a fair share of fouls. Last season, the Nittany Lions totaled 221 fouls as a squad compared to 208 for their opponents. Maryland should be in for a physical match on the road come Friday.

Three Things to Watch

  1. How will the young talents perform in the opener? With the departures of Matt Di Rosa, Eli Crognale and Ben Di Rosa after two games, the Terps have some gaping holes to fill all around their roster. However, Cirovski and some of the veteran players have voiced their confidence in the younger players and it’ll be interesting to see how this array of talented freshmen perform in their first collegiate game on the road. Look for players like Ben Bender, Alex Nitzl and Joe Suchecki to see some playing time against Penn State.

“I think they’ve adapted really well,” Maryland midfielder/defender Nick Richardson said. “The new additions this semester have been excellent, I mean, we’ve kind of been blown away by their quality.”

2. Will Paul Bin return to form? After missing all of the last season due to an ACL injury on the first day of preseason training, Bin is back for the Terps and has already been named a captain for the upcoming season. If Maryland gets back the Bin that fans saw in 2018 when it won the national title, the Terps could be in store for yet another strong season. Bin has the ability to stretch the field with ease and he’s a game-changing playmaker. Keep an eye out for Bin’s individual performance because it should be a strong indicator of the form of the player that will be seen on the pitch for the rest of the season.

3. Who will receive the first opportunities to replace the roles of the Di Rosa twins? It’s no secret that replacing Matt Di Rosa will be a very difficult task at hand for Cirovski’s squad. And even though Ben Di Rosa is available for two matches, Cirovski would be wise to test out his possible replacements before Di Rosa’s eventual departure. The head coach named players like Richardson and Isaac Ngobu as possible options to fill the Di Rosa’s shoes. This is one of the major storylines early on for Maryland as the season rapidly approaches and it’ll be noteworthy to see which players receive the first opportunities to round out the starting lineup.

“I think our backline will be a little bit of a work in progress in the early part of the season,” Cirovski said. “But we’ve got players that have played in the back and have some good experiences and we’ve been working out that over the last few weeks.”