As an unseasonably warm evening at Ludwig Field cooled last night, the vast green expanse in front of the Lehigh goal shrank and shrank.
Soon enough, the Terrapins men’s soccer team wasn’t facing a green penalty box anymore. It was brown with Mountain Hawks players cramming the front of the goal, desperately trying to make the trek back to Bethlehem, Pa., with a draw against the nation’s top team.
But as the No. 1 Terps did Friday night against then-No. 2 North Carolina, Oct. 12 at Duke and Oct. 9 against Rutgers, they found a way to win. Forward Patrick Mullins scored two goals, including the game-winner in the 88th minute, to power the Terps to a 2-1 victory over Lehigh and match their best start in program history.
“We’ve seen a lot of this,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “You get everybody’s best shot. We rose to the occasion Friday in a big way, and I just think this was the hangover that you didn’t want to have.”
Staring at a 30-6 shot advantage and 12-3 advantage in corner kicks, the Terps felt like they came up empty.
“We let the team, the worst team we played all year, hang around for far too long,” defender London Woodberry said. “They get one chance, and they put it away. That’s what happens when you’re taking 30 shots and only getting two goals. That’s unacceptable.”
With the Terps (14-0-1) leading 1-0 in the 59th minute, Lehigh forward James Meyerkord stole the ball from Woodberry near midfield and streaked down the field with Woodberry and defender Kyle Roach in pursuit. Goalkeeper Jordan Tatum came out to challenge, but Meyerkord put it past the redshirt freshman and into the back right corner of the net.
The next 30 minutes were filled with near misses, saves from Lehigh goalkeeper Taylor Sulmonetti — who entered the game at halftime — and missed connections in the box. At various points, the Mountain Hawks (4-12-0) had four defenders flanking Sulmonetti and they recorded three team saves in the game.
“I wouldn’t even say they were the frustrating part,” Mullins said. “It was more ourselves and the lack of concentration and enjoying what we do best, which is scoring goals.”
After being pushed to the brink against one of the nation’s top teams in North Carolina just days ago, a repeat seemed improbable — especially against a team that started the season 0-7.
Mullins continued to stake his claim as the ACC’s most dynamic playmaker and recorded his ninth goal of the year in the 12th minute. Defender Mikey Ambrose played a ball into the box to midfielder Tsubasa Endoh, who crossed the ball to Mullins at the far post. With Lehigh goalkeeper Ciaran Nugent pulled to the near post, Mullins had a wide-open net.
The Terps appeared headed for another result like the 6-0 rout of California on Sept. 2 or the 4-0 triumph at Boston College five days later. But after 45 minutes of play and a 12-1 shot advantage, the Terps’ lead was still just 1-0 at halftime.
“It’s tedious in a way because these guys are nobodies pretty much, and it’s annoying because we didn’t come out the way we wanted to play,” Woodberry said. “It turned into a dogfight at the end of the day. It makes the game not fun when you have to play a low-quality opponent and not be efficient in your job.”
Once Lehigh tied the game, it brought the defense back and forced the Terps to try to pick their spots to score. Forward Schillo Tshuma put three shots on goal but came up empty. In the flurry before Mullins’ 10th goal of the year and sixth game-winner, a Lehigh defender saved midfielder John Stertzer’s header off the goal line in the 86th minute.
The Terps’ dissatisfaction with their performance was obvious as they silently huddled around Cirovski following their post-game stretching regiment. If the Terps have similar showings in the next two games against Clemson and Wake Forest, the end of a seemingly charmed season could be nearing.
“It was frustrating. I think it was frustrating for the players. It was frustrating for the coaches,” Cirovski said. “I think it was going to be a concentration challenge tonight from the beginning, and we didn’t meet it.”