SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — In the 13th minute of the national championship game, Maryland midfielder Amar Sejdic slipped and fell with a prime opportunity to score his third goal of the NCAA tournament.
Forward Sebastian Elney snuck a pass through Akron’s backline as Sejdic made his run into the box. But as the senior received the pass and wound up for a shot with just the goalie to beat, his left foot came out from under him.
Sejdic fell to the ground and the ball rolled out for a goal kick, a squandered early chance to claim the critical first score on the biggest stage in college soccer. Without the slip, he felt it would’ve turned into a goal, but Sejdic knew that spoiled opportunity wasn’t his last.
He quickly moved on, mentally preparing himself for a second half filled with moments to make his mark on the Terps’ 1-0 national championship win, including the penalty kick he converted for the game-winner.
“You just have file that moment,” Sejdic said. “And understand there’s going to be another chance in the game.”
The senior’s final two shots of the first half were blocked, and Maryland entered the break without a goal in the first 45 minutes for the first time in the tournament. Even though he had a miscue in that goalless half, Sejdic would eventually continue his habit of punishing teams for their mistakes.
In the Terps’ second-round game against NC State, Sejdic took advantage of an errant goalie clearance to put the Terps up 1-0. Against Duke in the third round, Sejdic ran onto a defender’s aimless backpass to seal a 2-0 win.
So when defender Johannes Bergmann took a cleat to the face in the 56th minute, drawing a penalty kick, the captain of Maryland’s offense stepped up to the penalty spot.
“Chase [Gasper] handed me the ball, told me, ‘You got his,’” Sejdic said. “From that moment on, I knew I had to support my brothers. I was going to put it in the back of the net.”
Sejdic, who said he always dreamed of scoring a goal in a meaningful match at Ludwig Field, saved that chance for a bigger venue on the most meaningful stage. He went left, while goalie Ben Lundt dove the opposite way, and Maryland players and fans erupted at Harder Stadium.
In a season scripted for redemption, Sejdic taking the spot kick was just that. In two of his previous three NCAA tournament experiences, Maryland was eliminated in a penalty shootout. He didn’t participate in either.
In the 2015 quarterfinals against Clemson, Sejdic was sent off on a red card in double-overtime, making him ineligible for the shootout. Last year against Albany, Sejdic exited the game with an injury and wasn’t chosen to participate.
“He’s one of our best penalty kick takers. When the moment presented itself, I knew what was going through his head,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “He couldn’t wait to get there and put the ball in the back of the net.”
Maryland hadn’t drawn a penalty all season, but later in the half when Lundt tripped forward Matt Di Rosa in the box, the Terps abruptly earned two in the final game of the season.
Sejdic took it again, this time stutter-stepping his way to the ball. He chose the same spot as his first attempt, but Lundt dove correctly to keep it a one-goal game with 15 minutes remaining. A missed penalty kick could be disheartening, but still with a lead in the waning minutes of the season, Sejdic made sure Akron didn’t turn the save into momentum for an equalizer.
“I knew I couldn’t show any signs of weakness because I wanted my players to know that’s not going to affect my play so I don’t want it to affect the way that they play,” Sejdic said. “Of course I wanted to score a second goal, but the biggest thing for me was not to show weakness.”
Even trailing by a goal with their season on the line, the Zips struggled to generate chances after the Sejdic misfire. They only had one more shot after Lundt’s big save, but it was blocked before it could even get to goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair.
As Maryland and Akron exchanged headers on the Terps’ side of the field, the clock ran out with Sejdic’s penalty kick goal as the only tally on the board — the last of three tournament goals that awarded him the College Cup’s offensive most outstanding player.
Sejdic scored the team’s first goal of the season after a 476-minute scoreless drought. He ended the season leading the national championship with six shots, three shots on goal and the decisive penalty kick he felt destined to take.
“This became Amar’s team,” Cirovski said. “We have great seniors, but Amar took this team over.”