The Washington Times - September 25, 2009, 11:21AM

Sasho Cirovski knew September could be tough on the Maryland soccer team.

There were quantitative and qualitative losses from last year’s national title team, things that couldn’t be fixed overnight.

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Yet the Terps head into tonight’s top-five showdown with North Carolina (8 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel) at Ludwig Field at 4-1-1 and playing for the outright ACC lead.

“Over the first four games of the year, the performance of our young team has been outstanding,” Cirovski said. “We’ve improved in certain areas, but we’re still far from a finished product. I like what I’m seeing. I like the way they’re coming along. I think the challenge we’re having is we’re still getting everyone’s best game. At the end of games, we’re feeling the aches and pains of that.”

That was going to happen. But those questions about the untested back line? That’s pretty much emerged ahead of schedule.

The home victories over California and Boston College helped. Last week’s tie at N.C. State came after the Terps rallied from a one-goal deficit despite playing the last 53 minutes of regulation a man down and left with a 1-1 tie.

And Cirovski, who figured to play around with formation well into the season, hadn’t had to utilize trial-and-error during games as much as anticipated.

“I think it’s figured itself out a little faster,” Cirovski said. “I think because we’ve ahd some success, we haven’t had to tinker as much. But there’s been a lot of tinkering in practice.”

But there are some challenges. Saturday’s game in the humidity was draining, and coupled with a three-day turnaround, it probably contributed to a less-than-stellar 1-0 defeat of St. Peter’s on Tuesday.

The back end of that – tonight’s showcase game – might have played a role, too.

“No matter what you do as a coach, there were guys saving their bodies a little bit for Friday’s game,” Cirovski said. “It was just one of those things. Thankfully we got through it and filed it and I think we’ll be ready.”

There’s plenty on the line for the Tar Heels (5-0-1), who have not defeated Maryland in the schools’ last eight meetings (0-7-1). That includes games in last year’s ACC tournament, as well as the College Cup final. Maryland recorded shutouts in both games.

Carolina, though, might have the stronger outfit this time around. Certainly, the Terps will find out in what could be a raucous environment even for Ludwig.

“With the recent history with Carolina and the respect for their program, it’s a bigger deal,” Cirovski said. “But keep in mind it’s a new season. It has nothing to do with last year. It’s just another progress in this year’s season and resume building.”

Patrick Stevens