A once-shaky Maryland men’s soccer squad has displayed its growth in four-game stretch

Midfielder Eli Crognale takes a penalty kick in Maryland men's soccer's 2-0 win over No. 14 Cal State Fullerton on Oct. 5, 2019 at Ludwig Field. (Richard Moglen/The Diamondback)

Following a 3-1 loss to Northwestern on Sept. 20, Maryland men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski said he felt “gutted and empty” with his team’s performance.

But since those feelings of disappointment, Cirovski has seen his team rise to the occasion. With a 2-0 win over No. 14 Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, the Terps have now rattled off four consecutive unbeaten results — three wins and a draw — against two top-15 teams and a pair of conference opponents, steering its season back on track.

It’s not just the number in the win column that’s growing. Cirovski’s squad, largely inexperienced at the beginning of the year, has taken shape over the four-game stretch as the players have become more confident.

“It’s time for people to kind of wake up and understand that we’re the real deal,” midfielder Eli Crognale said. “We had a rough start to the season, but we’re for another national championship.”

[Read more: Maryland men’s soccer upsets No. 14 Cal State Fullerton, 2-0, in heated battle]

Coming into the season, Cirovski knew his group would have some growing pains. Replacing 11 contributors from last season’s national championship roster would entail younger players fitting into larger roles.

That mission only became more arduous with injuries to forward Paul Bin and midfielder William James Herve, relegating Maryland’s top-two returning offensive players to the sideline.

Forward Brayan Padilla thrived in his increased playing time, scoring two goals and becoming a threat on free kicks with a strong left-footed shot. But during pregame warmups ahead of Wednesday’s match against Rutgers, the sophomore suffered a knee injury that the team fears could keep him out long term.

“It doesn’t just happen over a couple-week preseason,” Cirovski said. “It’s taken some time. It’s getting better and better. Obviously, the challenge keeps getting greater because we just keep losing players. But so far, we’re on the right path.”

[Read more: With an influx of injuries, Maryland men’s soccer had to rely on depth to top Rutgers]

After the Northwestern game, Cirovski made a tactical change to better suit the players he had available. Using a 3-5-2 formation against then-No. 9 St. John’s and Wisconsin, the Terps grinded out a 1-0 double-overtime win and a 0-0 draw while playing with 10 men for 70 minutes.

In the past two games, against the Scarlet Knights and the Titans, the team has shown flexibility with its formations, switching between the 3-5-2 and Cirovski’s preferred 4-3-3 alignment.

No matter the formation, though, the style remains the same — press the opposition in its own half, and be aggressive in creating chances on the attack.

“We’re a team that has a certain style of play and that tries to apply the principles of the game within our philosophy and culture,” Cirovski said. “Sometimes, systematically, you change a little bit to play to your strengths and minimize the strengths of the opposing team, and we’ve been able to do that the past couple of games.”

Aside from the formation alterations, the Terps have come out firing early in matches — a stark contrast to their first six games. They scored just two first-half goals in the first six matches and often found themselves overwhelmed by the opposition’s possession advantage.

Over the course of this four-match unbeaten streak, though, Maryland has been the team to establish itself in the first half, outshooting the opposition 32-16 in that span.

After not taking advantage of the early shot discrepancy against the Red Storm, Badgers and Scarlet Knights, Maryland finally broke through in the first half with two goals against the Cal State Fullerton and turned in its highest-scoring opening 45 minutes of the season.

“Just focusing on the fundamentals, what we started in preseason [and] our gameplans going into every game,” defender Ben Di Rosa said. “We’ve been executing a little better, just being a little sharper [and] a little more energetic starting games.”

Cirovski said he was “delighted” following the win over the Titans, a marked difference from his feelings after the loss to the Wildcats in the Big Ten opener 15 days prior. But the Terps absorbed that loss and put it behind them to get their season back on course.

“We had to learn from that,” Crognale said. “We just had to improve all facets of the game, and we have. That game is completely in the past right now.”

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