No. 1 Maryland men’s soccer finds second-half breakthrough for 1-0 win over USF

Midfielder Malcolm Johnston dribbles the ball during Maryland men's soccer's 1-0 win over USF on Aug. 29, 2019 at Ludwig Field. (Julia Nikhinson/ The Diamondback)

Maryland men’s soccer midfielder Malcolm Johnston sprinted into an open area in the box before leaping to match midfielder Eli Crognale’s corner kick. After redirecting the ball on target, Johnston’s momentum took him to the side of the frame, where he watched the back of the net ripple from his effort.

His positioning at the side of the goal also placed him in prime territory to receive the adulation of the Ludwig Field faithful as his teammates mobbed him.

Johnston’s score was the lone breakthrough in a 1-0 win over USF on Thursday night, as the No. 1 Terps used a similar formula to last season’s NCAA tournament run — suffocating defense and opportunistic goals — to start the regular season with a victory.

“Our pressure all over the field was smothering — it reminded me a little bit of what we looked like at the end of last year,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “When we can defend like that, we’ll have a chance to win any game. And tonight, we got the one moment we needed.”

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Despite several losses incurred along the backline, Cirovski’s squad continued its run of stifling defense from a season ago, posting its sixth straight clean sheet dating back to 2018.

Because of the stout defensive effort, redshirt freshman Russell Shealy wasn’t tested often in goal, but was up to the challenge for two relatively easily saves on USF’s only shots of the match.

The defense also retrieved possession and allowed Maryland to progress up the pitch, but the Terps couldn’t convert on their initial scoring chances.

By the end of the first half, Maryland had asserted its dominance with a 7-1 shooting advantage — an edge reflective of the possession advantage the home side enjoyed. But even with the control, the Terps misfired on five of their shots.

“I actually thought [the attack] was pretty good until we sort of got in the final third,” Cirovski said. “We’ve got some good quality, the pieces are still sort of connecting to each other.”

Forward Eric Matzelevich had a breakaway one-on-one shot saved in the 11th minute, with USF goalkeeper Harrison Devenish-Meares coming off his line to force a difficult shot that he corralled. The senior striker also had two other chances, but each sailed off target.

The Terps had one other shot on goal when forward Justin Gielen skied to connect on a header off a free kick service from Crognale, but Devenish-Meares positioned himself well for a routine save.

[Read more: As it embarks on title defense, Maryland men’s soccer is embracing another tough schedule]

Both sides struggled to find any looks on goal through the first 20 minutes of the second half, exchanging possession without creating any threatening opportunities in the final third of the field.

But in the 69th minute, a ball deflected off a Bulls defender to set up a Maryland corner kick. Crognale curled the corner into the box, where Johnston sprinted into position for an uncontested header that gave the Terps their first tally of the year.

“The whole game we were pressing. We had a lot of chances, maybe not so much quality chances, but we had chances,” Johnston said. “I just tried to create that spark with my movement and my passing. And I was happy to open up the scoring.”

Cirovski’s team leaned on its defense in the final 20 minutes to preserve the clean sheet and seal the first victory of the season as the team begins its chase for a return to the top of the college soccer landscape.

While the winning formula resembled what the team utilized to win a national championship a season ago, Johnston’s goal alleviated any concern of the start of this year mirroring the 476-minute scoring drought that plagued the Terps during an 0-2-2 start in 2018.

“That was exactly what I was worried about going into the second half,” Crognale said. “We just said, ‘Let’s just keep the intensity right now, it’ll come. Just be patient.’ And then we got that goal, and it was a huge relief.”

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