For coach Sasho Cirovski, this is when the season starts.
After dropping its first three games, Maryland men’s soccer is now undefeated in its past five. It has beaten previously undefeated Michigan, edged a tough Northwestern team and dispatched Wisconsin.
But in a season marred by cancellations due to injury, the Big Ten tournament is the real focus for the Terps.
“Right now it’s one at a time. It’s a new season, and this is a critical game,” Cirovski said.
Still, Maryland goes into the conference tournament a depleted squad. The team had to cancel its last game against Indiana due to a lack of fit players. It sustained injuries to starters such as goalie Niklas Neumann, midfielder Malcolm Johnston, striker Eric Matzelevich, among others.
So, the Terps look a lot different than the deep squad Cirovski might have pictured in early February.
“We’ve dealt with some health issues, but I think we’ll be in a good place on Saturday,” Cirovski said.
Of the players that started the Terps’ NCAA tournament loss to Wake Forest two years ago, seven are slated to be among the squad that Saturday afternoon. Center back Brett St. Martin is likely to be in the starting eleven. So too are Malcolm Johnston, Nick Richardson and Justin Harris.
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Otherwise, the Terps look a far different unit.
In lieu of that, Maryland will turn to a slew of less experienced but effective options against a Rutgers squad that beat it, 2-0, in early March.
Among them is attacking midfielder Mike Heitzmann, a fifth-year senior who has been crucial in Maryland’s revival. The Clarksville native had featured sparingly in his first four seasons as a Terp. But this year, he’s established himself as a crucial component of the team, scoring a goal while averaging over 50 minutes per game.
“I have my confidence now,” Heitzmann said. “I got out there, and I’ve been playing free.”
Also in the fold will be left back Alex Nitzl. The Bayern Munich academy product has thrived at a left back spot that appeared to be up in the air after Matt Di Rosa left to Toronto FC.
Since being cleared due to transfer regulations, he’s started six of seven games on the left side of the Terps backline. And in that role, one that needed stability, he’s found his spot.
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“He’s done an excellent job. It’s pretty tough being a right-footed guy and coming into that position, but all credit to him,” Richardson said.
There are more new faces, too. Midfielder Ben Bender has been a revelation in his rookie season, scoring twice in the Terps’ last two games and threatening with his dribbling and passing ability.
So, the Terps are dangerous, even with their lack of playoff experience. It’s been perhaps a predictably turbulent season. Still, those games, ones that earned Maryland a quarter final appearance and the chance to play at home now, don’t really matter.
In reality, only one thing does.
“We’re a better team than we were in late February,” Cirovski said.