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Terps' Sasho Cirovski fighting for role of college soccer

Amid the old Terps jerseys and the "Daddy's Girls" picture frame and the College Cup posters in Sasho Cirovski's office sit the Maryland soccer coach's two bookcases. They're packed, he says, with "every coaching book you can imagine."

One book in particular stands out: the autobiography of Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, who before his 2013 retirement won 13 English Premier League titles, 19 domestic cups and two Champions League crowns. He is, in short, probably soccer's most successful manager of all time — and by far its most legendary.

He's also a good friend of Cirovski's.

The two met in 1980, when Ferguson was the manager of Scottish league champions Aberdeen FC and Cirovski an aspiring pro from Ontario. Cirovski was there for a trial, and Ferguson — impressed with the Yugoslavian-born midfielder who took notes after every practice — ultimately offered him a contract.

Cirovski turned it down. Longing for a college degree, he started the next fall at Wisconsin-Milwaukee instead.

In recent years, that kind of path has come under increasing criticism in U.S. soccer circles with the transformative appointment of Juergen Klinsmann as national team manager. College soccer's seasons are too short, its detractors say, and the training environments aren't good enough to compete with the Manchester Uniteds of the world.

"The good players are going to go with the MLS teams — that's just the reality of it," said Bohemians coach Santino Quaranta, a Baltimore native who joined D.C. United at 16. "They're not looking to play in college. That's not what the best players are going to do. If the kids on this team — obviously it plays a role with their families and stuff, but I can tell you, if they had a chance to play in MLS today, I'd imagine that they'd take the opportunity."

Yet when Klinsmann announced his 30-man preliminary roster for this summer's World Cup, four former Terps were on the list. Two of those — midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Omar Gonzalez — ultimately went with Klinsmann to Brazil.

Against Ghana on Monday night, it was Zusi's corner-kick assist that led to the United States' 86th-minute game-winner.

“It really ticks me off when ... people who don’t spend the time to see what happens internally at the University of Maryland, [criticize college soccer],” Cirovski said. “If you come here and see what really happens and then you make that argument, then fine.

“But do your homework before you make claims like that.”

And so it is that Cirovski, now approaching his 21st year in College Park, continues to see the value in education.

An issue of philosophy

At the 1990 World Cup in Italy — the United States' first appearance at the tournament in 40 years — all 23 players on the U.S. roster had gone to college. Two of them (midfielders Chris Henderson and Neil Cavone) were still in college when they were named to the squad. And one, then-Blast player Desmond Armstrong, was a Maryland alum, the school's first World Cup player.

With no professional outdoor league in the country at the time, college soccer was more important than ever. Still, when Cirovski arrived at Maryland in 1993, there were just four scholarships, no men's soccer media guide, no TV or VCR in his old office to break down film, and too few players to scrimmage 11-a-side in practice.

As he looked to build the program, then, he looked to Manchester United.

"There's just a commitment to excellence and a complete, all-in mentality of everybody associated, from the parking attendants to the grounds crew to the people in charge of the tea at Manchester United," Cirovski said.

That formula appears to have paid off, too: Maryland won its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in 1996, reached its first College Cup in 1998 and won its first of two national championships seven years later.

This season, 16 former Terps are also on Major League Soccer rosters — a total that trails only UCLA in terms of MLS alma maters.

"[Cirovski has] built an atmosphere, he's built a program, he's built a culture that a lot of top players in the country identify with and get excited about and want to play in," Georgetown coach Brian Wiese said.

In the mid-2000s, Gonzalez and Zusi were among those top players. Two of just 11 players with college experience on the 2014 World Cup roster, both were highly touted coming out of high school, but both came to College Park far from the players they are today. Gonzalez, who became a regular starter for the senior national team last year, had been a striker until Cirovski recruited him and converted him into a center back. Zusi, who started only a handful of games as a freshman, took four years to blossom into a star.

No matter the learning curve, however, Cirovski has been able to keep many of his top players around. In 2012, striker Patrick Mullins won the Hermann Trophy — given to the nation's top college player — and, with a lucrative Generation Adidas contract from MLS on the table, chose to return for his senior year.

Just like Cirovski, he wanted a degree.

"I learned a lot, obviously, about myself as a player, but I think he also pushes you off the field as a person," said Mullins, who's scored four goals this year for the New England Revolution. "His thing is that he wants you to be excellent in all you do, 100 percent, 24/7, and I think that's something I really took away from it."

And that's where Cirovski thinks college soccer makes its mark. Eleven of the past 12 MLS Humanitarians of the Year, he likes to point out, went to college.

"I believe in a philosophy that winning starts with people and ends with people," Cirovski said. "College produces not only really good players but even better people, and it's helped MLS grow to a level of professionalism that now has [made it] one of the model leagues in the world. And part of that is the character and leadership qualities that you develop in college, beyond your soccer skills."

Still, many remain skeptical.

"Character-building's great, but a lot of guys, their character's being built in the locker room," Quaranta said. "It's a balancing act of: 'It does build character, but is it two, three years too late?'

"In Europe, you see guys 18, 19, 20 years old flourishing. Now we're getting guys who are 24, 25 flourishing."

Such was the case for Zusi, 27, whose first national team call-up didn't come until 2012. For him, this first World Cup could easily be his last. For the player who got on the end of his corner kick against Ghana — 21-year-old German-born defender John Brooks — at least two shots remain.

"Sasho's produced a lot of big-time players, but they progressed on when they got to an MLS environment," Quaranta said. "And it's not like they're coming out right off the bat and going into World Cups. You look at Graham Zusi and [2010 World Cup midfielder] Maurice Edu, and when these guys are coming out of Maryland, it's taking them a couple years. Now, could that two years have been two years prior?"

Any comparative growth curve between college training and pro training is tough to quantify.

Edu and Gonzalez were each named MLS Rookie of the Year in their first seasons, and Mullins — who wasn’t a top-rated high-school recruit — could do the same. New England coach Jay Heaps, himself a former MLS and national team player, thinks Cirovski did “an unbelievable job” preparing Mullins for the next level.

Scheduling challenges

Where Klinsmann, Quaranta and others — Cirovski included — think the college game can do better is with its schedule.

Currently running from August through November or December, it leaves open some six or seven months for players to fill with offseason workouts, spring friendlies and minor league games in the summer.

NCAA administrators “clearly need to understand that soccer is not a seasonal sport — soccer is an all-year sport,” Klinsmann said on Fox Soccer Channel in 2012.

While Cirovski countered that his guys are still playing “132 days, 20 hours a week, full-time, six out of seven days a week,” he also disclosed that college soccer indeed is set to expand its schedule at some point in the near future.

“If we can get a few things changed,” Cirovski said, “it’ll be the best place for an 18- to- 21-year-old to play in the world.”

Adapt-or-die is the name of the game, after all, and Cirovski, seeing college "at the core of the American way," insists he’s not going anywhere. So for now, until schedule changes come, Cirovski will have to continue to get creative to help his players keep up.

In March, that meant another learning experience, as he brought the Terps on a long-planned tour of England. They took in games across the country and took on youth and reserve sides from Premier League clubs Tottenham and Crystal Palace.

The biggest match, though — as if it could be anything different — was against Manchester United. Former player Nicky Butt coached the Man U academy team as Ryan Giggs and then-manager David Moyes watched from the stands. And Maryland, mimicking its opponents' traditional style, pressed high on the wings and attacked for 90 minutes.

As Klinsmann continues his efforts to revamp American soccer, it's clear the college-pro debate will rage on. But when the Terps battled the English stars-to-be in Manchester, Cirovski's squad made sure it played its part.

The two sides tied, 0-0.

rbacic@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RyanBacic

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