A month into the 2013 season, coach Sasho Cirovski didn’t think his Terrapins men’s soccer team would make the NCAA tournament.
In seven games, the Terps were 2-2-3. Ludwig Field, typically a sanctuary for Cirovski’s program, was not providing an advantage. The Terps dropped a home game to Virginia Commonwealth on Sept. 8 in which the Rams scored three times in the final 13 minutes to steal a victory. About two-and-a-half weeks later, they played to a home draw against Old Dominion, needing an equalizer in the 83rd minute to avoid their second loss in three home games.
But at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., on Sunday, the Terps were one goal and two questionable no-calls away from winning a national title — a reality few thought possible after the team’s opening slate.
“I love my program,” Cirovski said Sunday. “I’m so proud of the players in that locker room. This has been one of the most fun teams I’ve been around. It’s dealt with more adversity than many of my teams in the past. We didn’t know if we were going to make the tournament after the first third of the season. But we found a way. We got better, showed our resiliency, showed our class, and came maybe one play or two away from celebrating today.”
Despite his team's defensive struggles and dwindling confidence, Cirovski never strayed from his commitment to his players and his process. Through those same seven games to start the season, goalkeeper Zack Steffen — a freshman who didn’t play for two months this summer after injuring his shoulder while on assignment with the under-18 and under-20 national teams — had allowed 14 goals. His 1.81 goals-against average ranked outside the top 150 goalkeepers in the nation.
Cirovski never benched Steffen, though, nor did he consider it. The freshman started all 26 games and played every minute for the Terps. He became a defining piece of the team’s ACC tournament title and its College Cup run, posting four shutouts in eight postseason matches. He finished the season with a 1.14 goals-against average, ranking 81st in the nation.
Steffen was not the only reason for the Terps early season defensive struggle, though. Cirovski’s backline floundered through the team’s first seven games — a result of youth and inexperience. At times during the beginning of the year, the backline featured up to three freshmen, including Suli Dainkeh, Chris Odoi-Atsem and Alex Crognale. The group didn’t understand the effort necessary to defend successfully at the college level.
Cirovski had to make changes, and his backline became a virtual carousel over the next several contests as the coach mixed and matched until he found the right combination. He moved midfielder Dan Metzger from the wing to defensive midfield, providing a calming presence. He brought midfielder Jereme Raley, a redshirt junior, off the bench and stuck him at right back, offering more experience to help quell the nervous decision-making from the young defenders.
Eventually, Cirovski settled on Dainkeh and Odoi-Atsem at center back over Crognale and sophomore Dakota Edwards, who was hampered by a nagging hernia. The duo entered about 30 minutes into the Terps’ regular-season draw at Virginia and didn’t miss a minute for the remainder of the season. Crognale and Edwards, meanwhile, never saw the field again.
The only constant on the backline during the year was sophomore Mikey Ambrose. And along with Raley, Odoi-Atsem and Dainkeh, as well as Metzger at holding midfielder, the Terps transformed from one of the worst defensive teams in the nation to arguably the best over the final third of the regular season and into the postseason.
“I think our backline has really come together,” Cirovski said. “Both Jereme Raley and Mike Ambrose have given us a lot of stability on the outside and both Suli Dainkeh and Chris Odoi-Atsem are just two guys who really understand their role to defend. And that’s what a lot of center backs don’t really understand.”
The Terps' development would not have been possible without the leadership of senior forward Patrick Mullins, who scored 19 goals this season, the most in the nation, and finished fifth on the program’s all-time scoring list with 47 goals.
Mullins played his final game as a Terp, but he will almost certainly move onto a professional career in Major League Soccer. And the forward said his time in College Park would be crucial as he takes his next steps forward.
“The Maryland soccer program has been the best thing for my soccer career in my life,” Mullins said Sunday. “I’ve improved tremendously over four years, and I get challenged every day. And that’s exactly what I signed up for, and that’s exactly what I got. And I think the people I encountered in my time made me into a great human being that is ready to move on to that next level.”
Cirovski referred to this year’s team as the “Fun Bunch” — a name derived from the players’ youthful jubilance and camaraderie. The coach admitted it wasn’t his most dominant team, nor was it his most talented. But he said when taking a group from the lowest of lows and nearly leading them to the pinnacle of college soccer, it’s tough not to grow attached.
“They’re giddy and goofy and silly and young. They just have a lot of fun, and sometimes it’s hard for me to relate,” Cirovski said with a laugh. “I’m getting older, but I really enjoy them. I really enjoyed them this year. They’re terrible singers, but they sing like crazy on the bus. And they’re just a really fun group and I’m really proud of the year we had.”