The words came out before Sasho Cirovski could stop himself.
The dean of men’s soccer at Maryland has watched defenses come through the program for 25 years, and the unit that helped capture the NCAA Division I championship in 2008 was perhaps one of the best at the college level. So how does the current defense compare with the one that brought the hardware back to College Park a decade ago?
“We were a very stingy defense, and I think this group has a little similarity to that group,” Cirovski said. “But I’m not ready to compare them to the 2008 team. But it does remind me of a team that showed that defensive pride.”
When the No. 11 seed Terps (10-6-4) visit No. 3 seed Kentucky (19-1-1) in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal on Friday at 6 p.m., they will try to counter one of the country’s most prolific offenses with a suddenly resurgent defense.
Maryland has not surrendered a goal in its last 230 minutes of play in regulation and overtime. In its past four games, the defense has allowed only one goal in a 1-1 tie with No. 2 seed Indiana that the Hoosiers won, 4-3, in a penalty-kick shootout in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament earlier in this month.
The defense’s emergence is much welcomed by senior defender Chase Gasper. “We’re catching steam at the most important time of the year, which is good for us,” he said.
The unit ranks 20th in the nation in goals-against average and 11th in save percentage and is one of 16 defenses that has recorded double-digit shutouts this season with 10. The last time the Terps were this inhospitable was 2010, when that squad ranked seventh in goals-against average and 12th in save percentage and finished with 15 shutouts.
Maryland opened the 2018 season with two losses and two ties in its first four games, giving up three goals over that span. Gasper said the defense was still building relationships, and junior defender Donovan Pines said the on-field communication was lacking.
“We just had to come together as a unit in the back line and start talking more and get more organized and just focus on the capabilities of the individuals in the right positions,” said Pines, a Clarksville resident and River Hill graduate. “As a group, we started to come together towards the middle of the season, and now we’re starting to do very well in the postseason. We’re basically organizing and making sure that we have each other’s backs.”
As humbling as the 0-2-2 start was, Cirovski credited the opening for exposing areas on defense that the coaches and players needed to address. Time was spent on aspects such as reinforcing with the forwards and midfielders their roles in dropping back, defending the box, and figuring out the proper positioning on crosses.
Cirovski pointed to a 1-0 win against then-No. 7 Denver on Oct. 16 as the turning point for the defense. Four days removed from a deflating 2-1 loss to then-No. 4 Indiana — which scored the game-winner with just 18 seconds left in regulation — the Terps got five saves from redshirt junior goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and shut down senior forward and Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy candidate Andre Shinyashiki (28 goals and four assists).
“I thought there was a tremendous commitment by the team, and we had to because we were playing against some outstanding individual attacking players on a team that really had a good plan of possession and penetration, and we really denied them from any real scoring threats,” Cirovski said. “I think they had one or two quality chances the entire game, and I thought that was a good catalyst for the rest of the season.”
Since the victory over Denver, the four-man back line has started seven different players. But in 2-0 postseason wins against North Carolina State and Duke in the first and second rounds, respectively, the starting four has consisted of Pines, Gasper, junior Johannes Bergmann and sophomore Ben Di Rosa.
Also in the playoff victories, the offense scored in the first half, giving the defense all the motivation it needed to keep the opponents at bay in the second half.
“We know that our attack is going to score,” St. Clair said. “So once we see that first goal go in, we know that keeping a clean sheet means we win the game. So going into the second half of the last couple games, we know that if we do our jobs, the game will be there for us.”
Standing in Maryland’s path to the school’s first appearance in the tournament semifinals since 2012 are the Wildcats, who are making their debut in the quarterfinal round. But what they lack in experience, they compensate in offensive firepower as they rank fourth in the country in total goals (49) and fifth in goals per game (2.3).
Kentucky’s standout player is junior forward J.J. Williams, who ranks third in Division I in total goals (18) and total points (44). Additionally, the team has scored 32 times at The Bell, their home field for Friday’s game.
“They have some great individual attacking players, including one of the best in the country in J.J. Williams, who’s having a breakout year,” Cirovski said. “But they’re also very good on the quick-hit counters. They generate quite a few goals off of their very good defense as well. They’ve been able to have some clinical finishes this year and are very confident right now. Certainly J.J. Williams is the pivot of their attack and someone we’ll have to deal with.”
Intimidation should hardly be a factor as the Terps have tangled with 10 NCAA tournament qualifiers in the regular season, including fellow quarterfinalists Indiana, Michigan State and Stanford.
“The schedule that we’ve had this year has really tested us,” Gasper said. “We’ve played against the top teams in the country. Not all of them have gone our way, but we’ve definitely learned along the way, and we’re battle-tested. So we’re just going to use all the experience we have from those games and bring it to the Kentucky game.”
After a rough start, the defense for the Maryland men’s soccer team has solidified into one of the top units at the NCAA Division I level. Here is a look at how the Terps have fared on defense since 2008, when they won their second national championship.
Year; Defensive ranking; Save pct.; Shutouts
2018; 20th (0.748 goals allowed per game); 11th (.824); 10
2017; 49th (0.994); 75th (.747); 9
2016; 63rd (1.08); T-146th (.714); 6
2015; 25th (0.85); 70th (.764); 10
2014; 34th (0.84); 174th (.689); 9
2013; 75th (1.14); 154th (.713); 8
2012; 70th (1.04); 199th (.644); 8
2011; 56th (1.01); 159th (.711); 8
2010; 7th (0.64); 12th (.831); 15
2009; 27th (0.81); T-77th (.782); 9
2008; 17th (0.68); 56th (.791); 15