As Michigan forward Jack Hallahan dribbled uninhibited toward the 18-yard box, Maryland men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski yelled from the sideline, “It’s too easy.”
Hallahan pushed a pass out to the wing for Nebojsa Popovic’s cross, which was redirected just high in the 50th minute of the Wolverines’ 4-2 victory on Sunday at Ludwig Field.
The Terps’ defense could breathe a sigh of relief in what was then a 2-2 game, but Michigan’s go-ahead strike seemed imminent with the time and space Maryland afforded. Four minutes later, the Wolverines exploited the open real estate with Hallahan’s header — Michigan’s third goal from inside the box.
For a Maryland team that’s leaned on its sturdy backline throughout its resurgence, the box defending was uncharacteristically porous in its regular-season ending loss.
“Our box defending has to get a lot better all the way around. They could’ve had a couple more,” defender Ben Di Rosa said. “We just were second to every ball in the box, and we’ve got to attack it better.”
In the first half, just after the Terps established a 1-0 lead, goalkeeper Niklas Neumann attempted to punch a deflected cross away. But Michigan defender Jackson Ragen knocked him to the ground instead.
When the ball fell to the turf, forward Mohammed Zakyi flicked in the shot. Maryland’s players and coaching staff contested the goal and advocated for a foul, but to no avail.
Though that goal was controversial, the next two were clear examples of the advantage the Wolverines enjoyed from close range.
Forward Derick Broche headed in a goal from Hallahan’s cross a minute into the second half. Then, Hallahan was on the goal-scoring end of Broche’s cross in the 55th minute.
“It’s tough, it puts a lot of pressure on us,” Di Rosa said. “If they put that many balls in, then it’s tough to clear them all. But we’ve still got to be a little better in the box.”
Last season, combating crosses was easier, with defender Donovan Pines patrolling the box. At 6-foot-5, Pines was an imposing presence at center back and an ace at headed clearances.
Defender Brett St. Martin has filled in admirably for Pines — who’s now playing in Major League Soccer — alongside Johannes Bergmann. But at 6-foot and 6-foot-1 respectively, St. Martin and Bergmann don’t possess Pines’ impressive stature.
“Teams are serving a lot of balls on us,” Cirovski said. “And we’re not the tallest team, so we have to minimize the amount of times people get the ball in crossing positions.”
And more problems surfaced Sunday when the Terps surrendered possession in the midfield, allowing the Wolverines to counter. With Maryland defenders scrambling to get back into position, Michigan capitalized on the open opportunities to come back from a second-half deficit.
This marked the second consecutive game Cirovski’s squad surrendered a second-half lead. In each game, the Terps notched two early goals and took a 2-1 lead into halftime. And relinquishing the edge at Ludwig Field made this loss all the more disappointing for the veteran coach.
“You get two goals like that at home, you should win the game,” Cirovski said. “We can’t give away that many goals.”
As Maryland heads into the Big Ten tournament as the No. 5 seed, with a road matchup in the quarterfinal against No. 4-seed Northwestern, the team will need to correct the errors it incurred against Penn State and Michigan.
Before the defense conceded a combined seven goals to the Nittany Lions and Wolverines, it had been on a three-game shutout streak. With a week to prepare for the Wildcats, the Terps will search for the answers to regain that form.
“We know that we can defend very well. We did it before; we had a lot of clean sheets,” Bergmann said. “We just have to remind ourselves what it takes to keep the sheet clean.”