When Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski began constructing his team's schedule for the 2018 season, he made to sure to remember how — and why — each of the last two years ended with an opening-game loss in the NCAA tournament.
Two seasons ago, the Terps entered the postseason undefeated before a stunning loss to Providence, in which they squandered a 4-1 lead in under 13 minutes.
Last year, the downfall was drawn out over the final month of the season. The Terps were unbeaten in their first 13 games but went winless from then on, ending the season with a penalty-kick loss to Albany at Ludwig Field.
What the two seasons had in common — aside from the result in the final game— was that both started with a lot of winning and a lot less adversity. That's why the 26th-year coach wanted to challenge this year's team against several powerhouse soccer programs early in the season.
"Sometimes, you can develop some bad habits through winning," Cirovski said. "In some of our most successful years, we've lost games, whether it's in the preseason or the first few games of the year. We've been able to find a way to get stronger through those losses, so that was my thought process."
A combination of a tough schedule and an anemic offense led Maryland to go winless in its first four games in a season for the first time since 1991. But after salvaging two scoreless draws before a 1-0 loss to UCLA, Maryland scored its first goal of the season Monday against West Virginia.
Now, the Terps' schedule eases heading into Big Ten play Friday night against Northwestern, a team Maryland has outscored 7-0 in the past two meetings. It marks the end of a difficult nonconference slate for a team trying to re-identify itself.
It was a much different start than in years prior, where Cirovski mixed in tough nonconference opponents with a few low-caliber teams.
Last season, Maryland played Santa Clara, Hofstra and Cal Poly in three of its first four games. None of those teams finished with a record above .500, and Maryland beat all three with a combined score of 7-2.
"We started off very strong, but we realized it didn't really make us stronger later on in the season," goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair said. "This tough schedule will be good for us in the long run."
Cirovski admitted he would've liked to start 2-2 in the first four games of this season, but despite falling short of that, he's been happy with his team's performance, except for its finishing the attacking third.
The schedule softened just a touch Monday when the Terps hosted West Virginia, securing a 1-0 win behind its first goal of the season. It was a sigh of relief for the squad, and a sign that perhaps Cirovski's strategy will pay off.
"Coach Sasho said before the [UCLA] game, 'This is a new start, a new beginning,'" defender Chase Gasper said. "Going into conference play, that's just the motivation, the confidence booster that we needed."