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Maryland men’s soccer NCAA Tournament preview: Missouri State Bears

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The Terps open their NCAA Tournament run with a matchup against Missouri State.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland men’s soccer (4-4-2) will officially kick off its 2021 NCAA Tournament journey with a second round matchup against the Missouri State Bears at UNCW Soccer Stadium in Wilmington, North Carolina, Sunday afternoon.

“Just really excited to get down to Wilmington and take on Missouri State,” Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We had an exceptional week of training, our best week of training of the year... guys are excited, re-energized, refocused and ready for the challenge against an outstanding Missouri State team.”

The Terps received somewhat of a surprise bid to the NCAA Tournament after winning just four of its 10 matches this season. Maryland started this year with three straight defeats but bounced back in the Big Ten standings, as the Terps finished as the fourth seed in the Big Ten table and eventually made it to the second round of the Big Ten tournament.

Despite the lackluster campaign, Maryland is back in the running for a national title. The Terps are looking to win the NCAA Tournament again after collecting a championship back in 2018 under Cirovski.

“Our chances were not looking so good and then when we saw the Selection Show, everyone was kind of in shock,” senior forward Eric Matzelevich said. “I was like personally kind of in a lot of shock to see us make the tournament, but I mean, I think we fully deserve it. So we’re just, you know, taking it and then running with it.”

The winner of the matchup between Maryland and Missouri State will play either No. 7 seed Washington or Grand Canyon in the next round of the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday’s match starts at 1 p.m. and will be streamed through the NCAA. Let’s take a look at what the Terps are up against in the second round.

Missouri State Bears (11-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley Conference)

2019 record: 18-1-1 (10-0, MVC)

Head coach Jon Leamy has been the coach of Missouri State since 1992 and he’s the longest-tenured men’s soccer coach in the program’s NCAA history. Leamy is also the winningest coach in school history and has led the program to five NCAA Tournaments (1997, 1999, 2009, 2019, 2021). He is a six-time MVC Coach of the Year and a four-time Midwest Region Coach of the Year as well.

The winning ways for the Bears continue under Leamy, as Missouri State captured the 2021 Missouri Valley Conference Men’s Soccer Championship after defeating Bradley and Loyola-Chicago. The Bears enter the NCAA Tournament with just one loss this season under Leamy as they get set to take on Maryland.

“They’re a good team, no doubt,” Matzelevich said. “They’re a good group, their attack is really polished, really potent, so it’s going to be really good game.”

Players to know

Junior forward Nicolo Mulatero (No. 7) — Mulatero is the man to look for when Missouri State enters Maryland’s defensive third. The junior is leading the Bears in goals by a landslide with seven on the season and he has also chipped in with a team-high eight assists as well. Mulatero has started in 11 out of 12 games this season and been a major factor in the postseason for the Bears. In the conference tournament, Mulatero collected one goal and three assists to help Missouri State win the MVC tournament. He’s the most lethal offensive weapon on this Bears team and he’ll surely see plenty of time on the pitch come Sunday.

Junior forward Aadne Bruseth (No. 9) — Bruseth, though not as efficient as Mulatero, is another strong offensive impact player for the Bears. The forward has started all 12 matches for the Bears this season and has been overall effective. Bruseth is tied for second on the team in goals with four and has the second-most assists with five. The Norway native has also attempted the most shots out of any player on the team (30). Look for Bruseth to be all over the Terps’ backline as he intends to cause havoc for Maryland’s defensive efforts.

Redshirt senior defenseman Kyle Hiebert (No. 21) — Defense wins championships and no one defends better than Hiebert on the Missouri State roster. The long-tenured redshirt senior has logged the second-most minutes out of any Bear this season after starting in all 12 matches. His efforts have helped Missouri State to six shutout victories this season. On top of his stellar defense, Hiebert can also contribute offensively as well. He has a goal, an assist and five shot attempts this year. Hiebert should be featured on the defensive end all afternoon against Maryland as he is one of Missouri State’s most important players.

Strength

Defense. If Maryland is going to advance to the next round, it’ll have to solve the Bears’ stout defense. Missouri State has conceded just eight goals in 12 matches this season while allowing an average of just 6.5 shot attempts per game to its opponents. The Bears have only allowed 29 shot attempts from their opponents to hit the target. That’s an average of just 2.4 shots on goal allowed per game. Missouri State’s defense is certainly solid and will be something that Maryland will have to break through if it hopes to move on in the tournament.

Weakness

No wins against strong opponents. The Missouri Valley Conference isn’t the strongest for Division I men’s soccer, and even though Missouri State came out of the conference with just one loss, it hasn’t had to face an opponent as strong as Maryland this season. Maryland has faced NCAA Tournament teams such as Indiana and Penn State, while the Bears haven’t played a squad this season that made the tournament. It’ll be interesting to see if Missouri State’s lack of strong competition will have an effect on them come Sunday.

Three things to watch

1. Can freshman midfielder Ben Bender continue to be Maryland’s X-factor? Bender has done nothing but impress in his first season in College Park, as he’s had a positive impact in nearly every game this season. He has logged the fourth-most minutes out of any Maryland player this season, while tallying two goals. His presence on the offense end cannot be understated, as Bender has also attempted a team-high 27 shot attempts. Keep an eye out for the youngster to see what kind of impact he’ll have in his first NCAA Tournament appearance.

“I mean, Ben {Bender} came here to play in the playoffs and thank goodness we’re giving him an opportunity to play in the playoffs,” Cirovski said. “Ben’s a terrific player, I don’t worry about Ben. I think he’s going to be outstanding on Sunday.”

2. Which Terps are healthy and fit to play? It’s been a long season injury-wise for Maryland as many important players on the roster have been forced to the sidelines due to physical ailments. Most notably, senior forward Eric Matzelevich has been working his way back to 100% health, starting sophomore goalie Niklas Neumann and freshman forward Jacen Russell-Rowe haven't played since March 19, and redshirt senior forward Paul Bin is already ruled out for the season due to injury. Maryland was afforded a long period of rest between the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament, but it remains to be seen which players Cirovski will make available against Missouri State.

“We were a little bit thin, little beat up, but I think feel like we are a little rejuvenated, well-rested and I think we’re ready to go,” Cirovski said.

3. Can Maryland translate its second-half season success into the NCAA Tournament? The Terps started the season winless, dropping their first three matches. However, dating back to March 7, Maryland has gone 4-1-2 over its last seven matches. At one point during that run, the Terps won four straight games until a 2-2 tie with Penn State on March 31 ruined that stretch of success. And despite a deflating 2-0 Big Ten tournament loss to Indiana most recently, Maryland should be in good form come Sunday. It’ll be critical for the Terps to carry over their momentum into their second-round performance against Missouri State.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” redshirt sophomore midfielder/defender Nick Richardson said of the upcoming matchup and the prospect of a chance to compete for a national title.

“We all know what can be done, we have some experience from the past of being in the tournament. And coming from that rough start, I think it really opened our eyes into what we’re capable of doing, which our form kind of showed throughout the season.”