CHESTER, Pa. — Maryland’s run to the 2013 College Cup final was orchestrated by the goal-scoring magic of senior All-American forward Patrick Mullins and freshman goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
Mullins, a favorite to win the Hermann Award as college soccer’s most outstanding player, seemed to live up to his reputation in the first half Sunday against Notre Dame at PPL Park. Unfortunately, Steffen proved he was human.
After Mullins had given the fifth-seeded Terps the game’s first goal with about 10 minutes left before halftime, third-seeded Notre Dame put a goal past Steffen on set pieces in each half to secure a 2-1 victory.
Fighting Irish senior defender Andrew O’Malley, who grew up not far from the championship site, scored what proved to be the game-winner in the 60th minute of the 90-minute match.
While the defeat denied Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski his third national title and the program its fourth, the win gave the Fighting Irish and its 68-year-old coach Bobby Clark their first.
The loss left Cirovski “genuinely happy” for his longtime friend and former mentor Clark, whose relationship with the Maryland coach dates back more than 30 years to the respective beginning and end of their playing careers in Scotland, but disappointed in the result.
Calling Notre Dame (17-1-6) “worthy winners”, Cirovski said of his own team, “At Maryland, we shoot for the stars every year, we aim high. When you aim that high and you don’t reach, you still end up on the moon, which is higher than most people.
“To lose today to a great Notre Dame team is no disgrace, nor any shame. There is heartache and disappointment in our locker room right now, but in true Maryland fashion, we’ll be back…We came one play or two plays away from celebrating today.”
There was also a remarkable amount of honesty on the part of Mullins, who admitted without prompting during the postgame news conference that his first goal should not have counted because he used his hand to control the ball before he shot.
Moments after Notre Dame midfielder Patrick Hodan was even more obvious in knocking a sure header goal by Maryland’s Alex Shinsky off the back line with his own hand or arm.
“That was definitely a crazy play,” a clearly distressed Mullins said, choosing his words carefully. “A lot of things happened in a short period of time…I made a mistake on my part and I’m very disappointed myself for doing that.
“It’s definitely hard for me to swallow. It was probably a comedy of plays that players and refs would want to take back. I will regret that one for the rest of my life.”
Cirovski said that Mullins, whose goal was his 19th this season and 47th of his storied career, played as if he were morally conflicted for the rest of the game.
“It affected him a lot after that moment,” Cirovski said. “We had some good talks. He tried to push through and I think he did in true Patrick Mullins fashion, but it did affect him because he is as good as he gets. He is a very tough person as we’ve seen through the year. His conscience was hurting. He put too much on himself. His conscience shining through is worth of a championship.”
Hodan reacted to his apparent infraction that wasn’t called — and would have resulted in a penalty shot for Maryland (17-4-5) and the player’s automatic ejection — much differently than Mullins.
Asked if he felt lucky that he didn’t receive a red card — meaning that Notre Dame would have had to play the last 55 minutes a man down, Hodan seemed matter-of-fact.
“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “It was nice header by the Maryland player, it [the hand ball] wasn’t anything deliberate, it was more of reaction, it was closer to the shoulder I’d like to say, but they ended up scoring anyway so it wasn’t too big of a deal.”
Cirovski declined to blame the referee, Chico Grajeda, calling the MLS veteran official “the best referee in the country.” Nor did Cirovski blame either Hodan or his own star for the hand balls in a game where “there were many players who had intentional hand balls.”
In the end, it was the two Notre Dame goals that decided the game.
The first, with a little over five minutes left in the first half came when a long throw-in found the head of Notre Dame midfielder Nick Besler, who redirected to the touch line where reserve forward Leon Brown slid the ball past a sprawled Steffen. Brown had come in when Vince Cicciarelli went out early with a broken collarbone.
The second also came off another set piece when O’Malley took advantage of his three-inch height advantage over the 5-foot-9 Shinsky to beat him to a free kick delivered by Notre Dame All-American Harrison Shipp, who was named the College Cup’s Most Outstanding Player.
Steffen, who had made one his now patented diving saves early in the game against Shipp, said of O’Malley’s header, “It’s always hard to judge, especially with the forwards running at you. It’s pretty much a reaction save. You’re almost lucky if you save it. He had a good header.”
Said Cirovksi, “We showed our lack of size on set pieces, we’ve got one player over 6-foot in the starting lineup, we’re gym rats running around trying to play good soccer. When O’Malley went up, we had a mismatch and unfortunately they put it in the back of the net.”
O’Malley’s goal gave a white-haired man his players call “Boss” a long awaited first championship after coaching Division I soccer for the past 28 years, having reached the title game once before with Stanford. That resulted in a 3-1 loss to Indiana in 1998.
For O’Malley it was also a bit of redemption.
“He missed a few [headers] all season, I can tell you,” Clark said with a smile. “And he knows that, we talked to him. He saved that for the right time.”
Said O’Malley, “The goal itself was really put up on a silver platter for me. It would have been really tough for me to screw it up I suppose.”
Given that it came in front of dozens of family members and friends made it even more special for O’Malley.
“I kind of said jokingly after the game but I’m a little bit serious, people think I’m good now,” O’Malley said.