It was an all-too-familiar scene for the Terrapins men’s soccer team in its 2-2 tie against North Carolina on Friday night.
Despite earning a one-goal advantage in the 11th minute, the Terps defense — both the midfield and backline — failed to protect the thin margin.
In the next 10 minutes, the No. 18 Terps surrendered two goals to the No. 2 Tar Heels. The first came on a penalty kick after midfielder Dan Metzger committed a reckless tackle in the box, and on the other, North Carolina midfielder Omar Holness ran 50 yards through the Terps midfield and defense before finishing past goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
At that moment, coach Sasho Cirovski decided he needed to make a change. Defender Suli Dainkeh failed to close on Holness, giving up a wide-open lane to the goal.
So, for the first time this season, the 21st-year coach brought some defensive experience off his bench, replacing his freshman center-back with Dakota Edwards, who started 23 games last season and was sidelined with a hernia through the Terps’ first four games.
The sophomore’s impact was immense and immediate. The backline tightened up and settled down. The young group’s passivity and lack of confidence dissipated, replaced with a conviction centered on Edwards experience and consistency.
The result was the best 60-plus minutes of defense the Terps have played all season, giving Cirovski’s high-octane and talented offense an opportunity to equalize the game in the 37th minute on forward Schillo Tshuma’s second goal of the game.
“[Edwards] had a full week of training,” Cirovski said. “We’ll see how [the injury] progresses this week and how he’s doing. And we’ll make some decisions for how we’re going to look on Saturday.”
Cirovski said the defense improved because of more than just Edwards’ presence, though. For the first time this season, his midfield consistently dipped back into their own end, relieving some of the pressure from the Terps’ young backline.
“The reason the backline did better was because the midfield gave them a lot more support with quality defending,” Cirovski said. “They weren’t left stranded as much as they have been in some previous games.”
The progress of the midfield was in large part because of the two-way play from Sunny Jane. The senior failed to log consistent stretches through the opening part of the season because he was too offense-oriented.
Against the Tar Heels, though, Jane was a different player.
“I saw the real Sunny Jane, the Sunny Jane I expect to see every game,” Cirovski said. “He was fantastic. It was by far his best game of the year, and he was too valuable for me to take off the field. If we get that kind of play from Sunny, it will bode well for the future.”
If there’s one thing the Terps have showed this season, it’s that they’ll score — they’ve scored at least two goals in every game this season.
The key moving forward now is defense. Edwards will certainly provide reassurance in the backline, but Cirovski expects the midfield to continue to provide support as the Terps enter the heart of their conference schedule.
“It was the best game of the year for our midfield,” Cirovski said. “And that was a very good sign.”