The Washington Times - September 25, 2008, 12:47PM

It’s time to make a recommendation that seems like it’s coming out of the blue.

It really isn’t.


The absolute best athletic event in the area (which is a very difficult thing to define) this weekend is tomorrow’s college soccer game between No. 1 Wake Forest and No. 2 Maryland.

First, the justification of why nothing else trumps it before actually getting into how cool the experience of 6,000 fans at Ludwig Field would be for a fan.

The Redskins and Ravens are on the road. So are the Nationals, D.C. United and both Maryland and Navy football. The Orioles are home for a completely meaningless series with the Yankees Blue Jays.

So, OK, the competition isn’t the greatest. I’ll grant that. But it would still be worthwhile to snag a ticket to see Sasho Cirovski‘s crew (as well as the students who make up The Crew) play the defending national champs in a game televised by Fox Soccer Channel.

(As a confession, I would be there myself, but work will take me to Clemson this weekend. Totally my loss).

After a couple years of not playing quite the attacking style Cirovski prefers, Maryland is starting to emerge offensively. At the other end, keeper Will Swaim has yielded one goal in four starts. The Terps are outscoring opponents 15-3, the best defensive start for the program since it yielded one goal in the first seven games of the 2003 season.

While Maryland (6-1) has ripped off five straight wins, the Demon Deacons are 7-0 and own a school-record 12-game winning streak.

“It could be their greatest team of all time,” Cirovski said. “They’re playing with a lot of swagger and a lot of confidence that carried over from last year, but they also have some real talent. I think any time you’re part of a 1 against 2 matchup kind of midway through the season, it’s special for any athlete or coach. That’s the reality of it. It’s fun.”

That’s a comment that’s plenty revealing about Cirovski and how far he and his program have come. Nine years ago, when Maryland was still trying to firmly establish itself among the nation’s elite (and I was a beat writer at the Diamondback first getting to know Cirovski), I’m not sure he would have talked about fun.

Maybe I’m wrong. But the fact is, nearly a decade later, Maryland is one of the nation’s elite programs, and Cirovski’s tenaciousness is a big part of it. He is a little mellower (this being a relative term for the hyperkinetic Cirovski) now, and he and his program have much to be proud of.

That’s not just because Cirovski set the school record for career victories last week (219 and counting). It’s because he’s done something truly remarkable that transcends all the wins, the five final fours and the 2005 national championship.

He’s made his program relevant to boisterous and loyal fan base willing to sit outside on chilly autumn nights and watch a consistently good team go about its business in an especially tough league.

Granted, the scale is different. But this isn’t an easy market in which to create a niche for yourself. As Gary Williams often says, it isn’t Lawrence, Kan. Big crowds weren’t common nine years ago, when the Terps were coming off a final four appearance.

Last week’s victory over Duke (the record-breaker) was the fifth crowd of 6,000 or more since the start of the 2003 season. Maryland never cracked 4,000 before then; it has attracted a dozen crowds that large in the last five years.

“That means a hell of a lot more to me,” Cirovski said. “To have an atmosphere like that, that we can do consistently two, three even four times a year … to me, that’s a bigger statement of where the program is than the wins. That happens over time. That’s nice, but to have three [to] four thousand students show up consistently, I don’t think there’s a better statement of respect for the program. I’m humbled by the appreciation the students have for our program. I just hope they keep coming.”

It went unspoken that an attendance record was possible tomorrow night. Ludwig’s listed capacity is 6,500 thanks to upgrades Cirovski spurred along (it was 4,000 a decade ago). A full house would best the crowd of 6,489 that watched Maryland play host to Duke in 2006.

It’s certainly possible. And maybe it should happen.

After all, for at least this weekend, it’s the best game in town.

—- Patrick Stevens