By Charles Boehm
Maryland came back from an early deficit to defeat hosts Virginia Commonwealth University 2-1 on Friday night, in a match whose intensity was more reminiscent of a crucial late-fall contest than the spring season training exercise it actually was.
Rapidly-dropping nighttime temperatures added to that perception, as did a substantial turnout of spectators at VCU’s Sports Backer Stadium in downtown Richmond.
“This crowd is bigger than some of our weeknight games in the fall!” marveled one VCU fan, taking note of the legions of young players watching on account of the game being staged in conjunction with the Boys Weekend of the massive Jefferson Cup youth tournament.
While the nation’s professional scene – which also opens this weekend with the start of the 2012 Major League Soccer season – has grown by leaps and bounds, earning a place at a top NCAA program is still a leading dream for many youth players and those watching Maryland-VCU got a good glimpse of the speed, skill and physicality at that level.
“VCU’s a very good team, and I think they’re potentially a team that could make a pretty good run in the NCAA tournament next year,” said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski afterward. “They challenged us a little bit, scored a great counterattack goal at the beginning of the game and forced us to come up with some solutions, and we did.”
The home team got off to a dream start when Yoram Mwila earned a penalty kick for the Rams just four minutes in after chasing down a defense-splitting through ball that exposed Maryland on the counter. Dennis Castillo, a recent arrival from San Jose, Costa Rica, calmly buried the spot kick for a 1-0 lead.
VCU fields a substantial overseas contingent featuring several players from Central America, Africa and the Caribbean, and beyond Castillo’s contributions, Jamaicans Jason Johnson and Romena Bowie looked good in forward and holding midfield roles, respectively. But Maryland’s talented roster responded to the early setback well, stringing together possession and clanging a low shot off the left post some 20 minutes into the first half.
Despite the hard work being put in by the Rams, Maryland always looked likely to strike back eventually and found the net following a free-kick strike that VCU goalkeeper Andrew Wells spilled inside the six-yard box, but the finish was waved off for offsides. Terrapins star Patrick Mullins finally found the net before halftime, poking home from point-blank range after a slick passing move sparked a goalmouth scramble.
“Patrick, we’re used to him scoring goals, it was an uncharacteristic goal – a garbage goal,” said Cirovski with a chuckle. “Normally he scores highlight-reel goals, so it was nice to see a little different look from him.”
The second half played out with a bit less energy, but the final result was an open question until the closing stages, when Terps redshirt sophomore Jake Pace rifled home the winner in a crowded penalty area after a cross from the left endline tore open the Rams back line.
“It was a nice surprise to see Jake score the goal, but I thought he worked extremely hard and put their backs under a lot of pressure,” said Cirovski of Pace, a big, physical player from Columbia, Md. who is determined to carve out a leading role amid the Terrapins’ wealth of attacking talent this season.
“He’s really improved a lot, I give him a lot of credit,” added the longtime Maryland boss. “I tried to make him into a center back but he said he wanted to compete as a striker. He scored a couple of big goals for us last fall, he’s had a good spring and he’s right there in the mix.”
VCU stormed back immediately after Pace’s goal and should’ve scored seconds later when an angled pass into space gave Mario Meraz a one-on-one with Terps netminder Jordan Tatum. Tatum read the Mexican’s chip, however, and made the stop to preserve the win.
Spring season continues when Maryland play the El Salvador Under-23 men’s national team in an international friendly at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md. on Sunday, while VCU host VMI and Wake Forest in a doubleheader on March 24.