It’s been six weeks since the Maryland men’s soccer team faced then-No.7 Denver and its leading goal-scorer Andre Shinyashiki. The senior forward for the Pioneers came into the Oct. 16 match with 21 goals in just 13 games.
Despite Shinyashiki getting two shots on goal, the nation’s leading goal scorer and MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, the highest individual honor in NCAA Division I soccer, left College Park empty-handed in a 1-0 loss to the Terps.
Head coach Sasho Cirovski credits this feat to strong defense from their centerbacks, juniors Donovan Pines and Johannes Bergmann, and their central-defensive midfielders, junior Eli Crognale and senior Andrew Samuels.
Now in the Elite Eight, the Terps will need those defensive midfielders against yet another MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist in Kentucky’s star forward JJ Williams.
After suffering some heart-wrenching losses, like the 2-1 overtime loss to Indiana on Oct. 12, Cirovski knew a change was needed.
To support the already solid defense, Cirovski pushed Samuels, who was just named captain in his senior season before the Big Ten Tournament, and his counterpart Crognale back to allow senior Amar Sejdic into more of an attacking-midfielder position.
The midseason formation switch proved successful in letting Sejdic have a bigger role in the offense, and limiting the number of balls that reach the centerbacks and redshirt junior goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, who now has 10 shutouts on the season.
“[Eli’s] set of skills is very complementary to what Andrew brings to the table, so I think the two of them together have been a very nice pairing,” Cirovski said. “They have been a real key in terms of helping us build, but also helping us break things down.”
The pairing works well together on and off the field, having been friends even before playing together at Maryland, through Eli’s older brother Alex Crognale, a Maryland soccer alum who Samuels shared the field with his freshman year. According to Samuels, this off-the-field friendship has has helped the two gel on the field this season.
Samuels has been a utility player for the Terps in his four years at Maryland, even playing on the backline while senior defender Chase Gasper was injured. But it’s safe to say that he has found his place alongside Crognale, filling in the gaps in front of Pines and Bergmann where forwards like Williams like to sit and wait for opportunities on goal.
“We talk a lot with Donovan and Johannes about where forwards like to go, right or left,” Samuels said. “Also when teams go wide, [we] sit right in front of them at the top of the box trying to pick off anything that comes their way.”
Williams, who is third in the nation with 18 goals, has carried the No. 3-seeded Wildcats during the regular season, and that pattern did not stop in the postseason. The junior attacker scored two goals in the Conference USA Tournament, and another two goals in the NCAA Second Round against Portland. Last Saturday, though, Williams was held scoreless in the Sweet Sixteen match against Lipscomb despite seven shots.
The Terps are riding a two-game shutout streak in the NCAA Tournament, after defeating NC State in the second round, 2-0, and upsetting No. 6-seed Duke by the same score.
“I think the last couple games we’ve had very good team defending, but I think the relationship between our centerbacks and our two central-defensive midfielders has been very good,” Cirovski said. “There’s been a good understanding of when to cover and also provide good support in building.”
The Terps will need to focus on covering especially while facing the Wildcats, who also have a weapon in Kalil ElMedkhar. The sophomore midfielder plays forward alongside Williams and has the second-most goals this season with 11.
Maryland will go on the road to The Bell in Lexington, Kentucky, for the NCAA quarterfinal match, where the Wildcats are undefeated this season. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
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