Sasho Cirovski
Sasho Cirovski

Ludwig Field has hosted its share of crucial games for the Terrapins men’s soccer team through the years. From nationally touted matchups to NCAA Tournament runs, the Terps’ home has a storied history that will be added to again tonight.

There, the No. 1 Terps will host No. 2 North Carolina in a matchup to take control of the ACC and assert national dominance.

The Tar Heels are the defending national champions. The Terps are off to their best start since 1968. A sellout crowd is expected, and ESPNU will televise the game to a national audience.

The stage is set.

“We’re going to be on a pedestal, and so are they,” goalkeeper Keith Cardona said. “It’s a clash of the titans, and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

For the fourth consecutive year, the Terps (12-0-1, 5-0-0 ACC) and Tar Heels (11-1-1, 4-0-1) are ranked in the top five at the time of their matchup. Tonight’s game, though, should take on a slightly different atmosphere than in the past.

Three-hundred sixty-four days ago, the Terps traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., for the teams’ annual matchup. But North Carolina was on fall break. Only 1,175 fans attended the 1-1 draw, a far cry from the Terps’ average attendance of 3,141.

“It definitely wasn’t an atmosphere like we’re going to have tomorrow,” Cardona said yesterday. “I wouldn’t say bad blood, but it’s an ACC rivalry. Us, whenever we play UNC, whenever we play Wake Forest, or a Duke or a Virginia, it’s going to be a crazy game. Things may get chippy. We just have to keep our cool.”

The Tar Heels may have graduated most of their key contributors from last season’s championship team, but they’ve gotten a boost in recent weeks. UNC forward Rob Lovejoy, who started all 26 games and recorded 19 points (seven goals, five assists) last season, was expected to miss the season and redshirt following hip surgery.

But 13 games into North Carolina’s season, the junior returned — in high fashion, too. Lovejoy began last Saturday’s game at College of Charleston as a reserve. But in 43 minutes off the bench, the Greensboro, N.C., native notched a hat trick and led a team that had scored one goal or fewer in more than half its games to a 3-0 victory.

“They’ve got not only six quality attacking players that they can rotate,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “Getting Lovejoy back is a big boost for them for sure. I’m sure, not only with his play, but the confidence of getting the [leader] back.”

While the Tar Heels are getting a main source of their offense back, the Terps’ offense is hoping to continue its success this year. But in addition to being a matchup between the top two teams in the country, tonight’s game also features the ACC’s top offense and defense squaring off.

Tar Heels goalkeeper Scott Goodwin has posted shutouts in 10 of 13 games this season, allowing just three goals. The Terps, on the other hand, have scored at least three goals in seven games this season and feature three players with at least five goals.

“I think it’s going to be a quick, fast-paced game that’ll be exciting to watch,” forward Patrick Mullins said. “I think that’s something UNC-Maryland games have provided as a brand the past couple years. It’s going to be entertaining soccer, fast-paced and just very tough and intense.”

The Terps have prepared for games like tonight’s since the start of the season. They opened the year with consecutive games against teams that started the year in the preseason top 10 (Louisville and UCLA) and have survived tough nonconference matchups against College of Charleston and Rutgers.

But nothing so far will match what the Terps will experience tonight. The spectacle, the familiarity, the stakes — it’s the Terps’ biggest game this season.

In the end, though, Mullins said, it is just soccer.

“If it was on our practice field right now, it would be the same intensity it will be tomorrow,” Mullins said. “But, obviously, you’ve got to do it underneath the lights and TV.”

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