Terps Soccer Stifles Creighton, Advances to College Cup
Maryland midfielder #22 Rodney Wallace heads the ball downfield during the Terrapins' 1-0 victory over Creighton at Ludwig Field in College Park, MD on Saturday December 6, 2008. David Lovell/DC Sports Box
What the Terrapins heard coming into today's game against Creighton was how good a defensive team they were. Prior to today's "elite eight" matchup, the Bluejays had allowed only 8 goals by their opponents in the regular season, while they tallied 36 for themselves. They shut out 12 teams in the regular season, including a streak of 6 in a row. Maryland's strategy in today's game was bold, defiant, and ultimately successful. They played offense the entire game.

Maryland kept the ball on Creighton's end of the field for what seemed like the whole game, pouring shot after shot at the goal. The Bluejays had not seen any team shoot this much all season, and the Terrapins went after them like birds on a wire. Maryland out-shot Creighton 11-2 in the first half, and 6-3 in the second.

The slim margin of victory, 1-0, is misleading, because it hides the fact that Maryland had a number of very good scoring opportunities that might very reasonably have resulted in a 2-0 or 3-0 outcome instead. Maryland's first goal was not their first good look at the net, and they followed that goal with several other good chances to put up security goals that never came to fruition.

The Terps had an Omar Gonzalez header go high, and then a Casey Townsend shot deflected high off a defender's leg. Finally, Rodney Wallace got a good header off of a Michael Marchiano free kick at the 23:40 mark, which he placed low and left into the goal box. Creighton keeper Brian Holt dove for the ball but was too late, and the Terrapins crowd roared their approval.

Earlier this year, Maryland's defense had been arguably too panicked, clearing long balls out of the zone rather than controlling them and turning defense into offense. Today's game was similar in its approach, but differed in one critical factor. Rather than simply giving the ball back to the opponents' offense deep in their end of the field, the Terps' offensive players went down-field and pressed hard, frequently using their superior ball-handling skills to steal the ball and press the offense immediately. The effect of this strategy was to prevent Creighton from getting any rhythm to their offense. They had very few opportunities to set up an organized attack. They would occasionally catch Maryland at a disadvantage and press for a shot, but Maryland defenders Omar Gonzalez and A.J. Delagarza played superb man defense, clearing balls that Maryland keeper Zac MacMath would then not have to worry about.

Coming out of the half, the temperature dropped and some very light snow began to fall. Throughout the game, however, neither side showed any particular signs of being affected by the cold weather, except understanding the stiffer bounces the ball took off the hard ground. The only injury might have been when Maryland Head Coach Sasho Cirovski got over-exuberant chastising the referee, and appeared to have garnered for himself a slight back muscle pull in the process.

The Terrapins did not fall into the trap of playing not to lose, and instead approached their offensive game in the second half exactly as they had done in the first, keeping the tempo up and the ball on the Bluejays' end of the field. The Jays were able to respond a little bit better to the pressure, and the ratio of Terps shots to 'Jays shots dropped slightly, but the overall sense of the game was not qualitatively different in the second frame.

The other statistic that was totally dominated by the Terrapins was corner kicks. Their play deep on the offensive end was very much superior, and they recorded a 5-1 advantage in corner kicks in the first half. In the second, even though their shots on goal dropped slightly, their corner kick advantage grew to an impressive 10-0 mark.

When the clock drew to the very end, Maryland stuck to the tried-and-true strategy of wasting time, as much of it as possible. They were patient in their approach to every throw-in, every corner kick, and every free kick, much to the chagrin of the opposing team. Only once did the referee get impatient and halt the clock, however, and the Terps were able to pull the ball into the corner and keep it there for most of the last two minutes of the game, effectively giving the Bluejays no opportunity to go down the field and try for a game-tying shot.

After the game, Coach Cirovski was ecstatic, calling his team's approach to the game a "championship effort," possibly alluding to an increasing sense that the National Championship might again be in reach. That road is a very difficult one, however. The ACC conference holds three of the remaining four spots, with Maryland joining North Carolina and Wake Forest. The fourth team is St. John's, who edged out Indiana 3-2 in a thrilling overtime come-from behind game this afternoon. The Tar Heels shut out Northwestern 1-0 to advance, and Wake Forest crushed South Florida 5-0, showing why they are the #1 ranked team in the country.

All action moves now to Frisco, Texas, where Maryland faces St. John's and Wake Forest faces North Carolina, with game times at 5:30 and 8:00 pm ET on Saturday, December 12. The National Championship will be decided on December 14.