A little more than a year ago, Maryland soccer coach Sasho Cirovski devoted nearly all of his training sessions between the Terrapins’ two exhibition games to strengthening the offense.
This season, he’s facing something different. Much different.
After the Terps relied on a stingy defense to collect their second national title in four years last fall, their entire back line departed. Omar Gonzalez and Rodney Wallace turned pro early — both were MLS first-round picks — and senior A.J. DeLaGarza was a second-round selection.
In turn, it has left No. 8 Maryland in an interesting place entering Friday’s season opener against No. 9 UCLA at Ludwig Field.
“We’ve always been a team that defends well,” Cirovski said. “Last year, it took us a little while to come together. I think we will be the same situation this year. Last year where we would have to win games 1-0, we’ll have to win a lot of games 2-1 or 3-2. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be in a position where we’re going to have to score a little bit more.”
The Terps didn’t need many goals to haul home last year’s championship. Maryland yielded just six goals in a season-ending 16-game winning streak, and opponents scored just once in five NCAA tournament games.
Such an extended stretch of defensive dominance probably won’t be replicated. But Cirovski is eager to see how his old stars’ successors hold up.
Fifth-year senior Kevin Tangney will be one of the anchors of the revamped defense, as will sophomore Alex Lee — the latest in a line of strikers Cirovski has converted into backs. Freshmen Taylor Kemp and Ethan White also are expected to start.
The group is backed by sophomore keeper Zac MacMath, who posted a school-record 0.44 goals-against average last season. Nevertheless, a September featuring four games against preseason top-20 opponents figures to be difficult.
“I think we’re pretty realistic,” Tangney said. “We know it’s going to be a learning curve early in the season, but we’re very confident in our abilities and our teammates. There’s no reason why we can’t formulate a bond very quickly and really have success early in the season.”
To that end, the four new starters arrived at camp nearly a week early in an attempt to accelerate their understanding of each other’s tendencies.
Cirovski has a hand in speeding things up as well. With 10 freshmen to integrate into the program, the veteran coach acknowledged he will likely spend much of the season’s first month tinkering with his personnel to uncover the Terps’ ideal lineup.
He’ll also play psychologist at times with a young group that is nevertheless the defending champs. The Terps were already an elite program after reaching five College Cups in the past seven years, but last year’s title unquestionably cemented their perception as a juggernaut - even in a season of retooling.
“Even before the second title, we were still probably in the top one or two programs out there, and now we’re clearly the top program,” Cirovski said. “Now there’s that bigger challenge. … There’s nothing better than to be the hunted by everybody, because that means you’ve accomplished a lot of really good things. There’s a lot of respect out there. That’s what I want. I wouldn’t change a thing.”