The night for Maryland men’s soccer got off to a glum start, as the team saw midfielder Brayan Padilla suffer a knee injury in pregame warmups that forced the team to shuffle its starting lineup.
Without Padilla, other players would be called upon to step up in the attacking third. One of them was none other than midfielder David Kovacic, Padilla’s roommate. And after scoring his second of two goals Wednesday night, Kovacic ran to the sideline to briefly celebrate with his injured teammate, who Maryland fears tore his ACL, with further evaluation on Thursday.
With Kovacic’s brace, the Terps rallied to shake off the tough start to the night with a 3-1 victory for their first conference victory of the season against Rutgers at Ludwig Field.
“This was a great culture win,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “This is a team where when one player goes down, when things get difficult, we all rise up.”
For the second-consecutive match, the Terps attack — despite being down some of its top creating options — generated a multitude of chances in the final third and showed increased connectivity on passes.
Maryland resolved the issue of early-season slow starts in its last contest against Wisconsin, putting the Badgers on their heels with an overwhelming 11-shot showing in the first half.
“We took that Wisconsin [result], going a man down, dominating pretty well, but lacking the final touch,” forward Eric Matzelevich said. “Today, and throughout training, we really wanted to have that execution at the final third.”
But despite that extra emphasis, the final result was reminiscent to the match against Wisconsin as shots continually missed the mark.
Matzelevich dealt four of those looks on goal, none better than a chip attempt on a one-on-one chance in the 22nd minute after Maryland won the ball back with its press. Matzelevich’s finesse finish, though, sailed just wide left and out of play.
The home side squandered another prime chance in the box when midfielder Justin Harris played a ball across to forward Justin Gielen at the doorstep, but the tap-in attempt was sent wide in the 36th minute.
Harris had a similar chance in the 56th minute as Matzelevich sent him in with a pass to the front of goalkeeper Oren Asher, but the freshman deflected his key chance off the mark.
One minute later, the Terps were finally rewarded for the chances they worked so hard to create over the past two games. Harris’ attempted shot at the edge of the box deflected out to the wing, where Matzelevich collected the loose ball and slotted home his seventh attempt of the night.
“I felt we should’ve had maybe two goals before the half,” Cirovski said. “But there was no panic. At halftime, we talked about being a little bit more composed and just making better decisions just technically and tactically in the final third.”
But Rutgers created its own chance when midfielder Nick Cruz lofted in a long diagonal pass to midfielder Pablo Avila, who maintained his onside position before catching up to the pass and chipping home a breakaway chance on goalkeeper Niklas Neumann in the 64th minute.
In the 77th minute, though, the Terps used a set piece to create yet another opportunity to push themselves back in front. A long throw into the box was headed further to Adetola, who tapped a pass to Kovacic for the strike.
Kovacic added an insurance goal in the 85th minute, with defender Chris Rindov heading a pass to the freshman across the goalmouth for an easy score en route to the Terps’ first conference victory of the season.
“When [Rutgers] came back and got the tying goal, I thought we stood tall,” Cirovski said. “Right away, our guys showed some good leadership and we got right after it.”
Padilla’s injury further diminished the depth of a reeling attacking unit that was already without the services of its top returning players in forward Paul Bin and midfielder William James Herve.
But just as has been the case with the team finding success without those key players, Padilla’s injury once again galvanized the group and served as an inspiration to earn the result for him.
“We all play for the team,” Kovacic said. “We’re a family so we play for each other and we just try to keep each other positive.”