All Patrick Mullins does is score goals, and when he does, all the Maryland men’s soccer team does is win.
The senior forward converted a centering pass from sophomore midfielder Tsubasa Endoh in the first half, and freshman goalkeeper Zack Steffen and the rest of the defense made the lead stand up for the fifth-seeded Terps in a 1-0 win against No. 12 seed UC Irvine before an announced 1,337 in an NCAA tournament third-round game at Ludwig Field here on Sunday.
Maryland improved to 15-3-5 and will meet No. 4 seed California (14-4-2) in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. The Golden Bears edged Coastal Carolina (19-5-0), 1-0, on Sunday.
Mullins’ goal was the 43rd of his career, and the Terps are 31-1-5 when the reigning Hermann Trophy winner scores. Mullins has posted four goals and three assists in his last seven contests.
“In games like this, special players make special plays and Patrick Mullins got in the right spot in the first half after Tsubasa beat his man,” coach Sasho Cirovski said.
With 13:20 left in the first half, Maryland broke a scoreless tie. Endoh carried the ball down the right side of the box, and after a couple fakes, he eluded a diving Anteaters defender. Continuing the ball to the endline, Endoh centered the ball, and a sliding Mullins redirected it past UC Irvine sophomore goalie Michael Breslin to give the Terps a 1-0 lead.
“Tsubasa had great balance and great agility to get past their left back, and that’s one of those plays where it feels like everybody is getting sucked to the near post,” Mullins said. “Sometimes those delayed runs, I think I was probably the third guy that came running in. I just took a hard, strong run and I kind of split two defenders, and at that point, it’s just kind of like putting your body on the line.
“The guy came in to try to clear it, and it’s just getting your foot on it to make sure because at that point, you can’t really miss. Just get something on it, and it’s going in the goal.”
While pointing out that his defense has played against forwards as talented as Mullins, Anteaters coach George Kuntz conceded that Mullins is a dangerous opponent.
“[W]hat I like about him is how he creates space for himself and he’s deceptive, and he’s got good pace and good skill,” Kuntz said. “Obviously, he’s a goal scorer. He’s a true goal scorer. I think he’ll do well in the next level.”
Clinging to that 1-0 lead after halftime, Maryland settled into a defensive shell, allowing the Anteaters to dictate the tempo and earn some prime scoring chances.
With less than 33 minutes left in the second half, senior forward Enrique Cardenas ripped a shot from about 18 yards from just outside the top of the box, and Steffen had to dive to his right to prevent the ball from nailing the top left corner of the net.
Seven minutes later, Cardenas had a free kick from about 25 yards away, and Steffen ranged to his right again to snatch the ball out of mid-air.
In the final five minutes of regulation, junior forward Cameron Iwasa crossed the ball from the right side of the box, and junior forward Lester Hayes III got his head on it from point-blank range. But the ball was knocked down by Steffen.
Then with 70 seconds remaining, Iwasa appeared to get behind the Terps defense and score the equalizer, but an official ruled that he was offsides and the goal was waived off.
While admitting that the pressure from UC Irvine was a little much, Steffen said he was grateful for the work.
“The back four to the midfield and up to the strikers, they all put in a lot of work,” Steffen said. “But I do like getting peppered a little bit.”
The Anteaters had scored 12 goals in the last 15 minutes of play this season, but they ran into a hot goalkeeper in Steffen.
“[I]n the second half Zack Steffen made two spectacular plays as well,” Cirovski said. “I’m really proud of our team. It was a total team effort.”