When Sebastian Elney visited this university in the middle of last September for his first recruiting visit, he hadn’t decided whether he would join the Terrapins men’s soccer team or play on the West Coast for UCLA.
But after coach Sasho Cirovski talked with the highly-touted recruit about this year’s matchup with the Bruins, the forward knew he belonged in College Park.
“Maryland and UCLA were my top two schools, and he knew that,” Elney said. “And he said, ‘September 4: That’s when this game is going to be. I know you’re going to be on the field. I just don’t know what jersey you’re going to be in. Hopefully it’s Maryland.’”
Clad in a black jersey with red stripes and the No. 9 on the back, Elney represented the Terps in their home opener against the top-ranked Bruins nearly a year after that conversation. And before a record-setting 8,449 fans, Elney headed home the game-winning goal six minutes into extra time, sending the crowd at Ludwig Field into euphoria and securing the No. 6 Terps’ 2-1 win.
“As soon as I saw the ball coming from [midfielder Tsubasa Endoh], I just knew it was coming right to my head,” Elney said. “Before the ball even hit the net, I started running over towards The Crew. That moment over there, it’s just insane.”
Elney, who referred to his game-winner as a “dream come true,” said he didn’t know the match was over until he saw his teammates running toward him. The team huddled around Elney, who had ripped his shirt off moments earlier, to celebrate its victory over the nation’s top team.
“What a college soccer classic,” Cirovski said. “We were a little bit on the ropes, and we came through with a great goal worthy of a winner in a game of this magnitude.”
Before Elney’s late-game heroics, the Terps (2-0-1) had a number of chances early. Forward Eryk Williamson forced goalkeeper Juan Cervantes to make two saves in the opening three minutes, and defender Ivan Magalhaes connected on a header moments later that missed wide.
But similar to their game against then-No. 4 Notre Dame on Aug. 28, the Terps couldn’t covert around the net in the opening period despite a flurry of opportunities. Cirovski’s squad had seven attempts against Fighting Irish in the season opener and ripped 11 first-half shots in their match with the Bruins on Friday, but both contests were scoreless entering intermission.
“We have to get the ball more wide and attack the flanks,” Cirovski said. “We did it early, we did it a little bit late and we got something out of it. We got the penalty-kick goal off of getting the ball wide as well. When we attack those areas, we’re very dangerous.”
The second half also featured many offensive opportunities, but this time, it was UCLA (1-1) challenging the Terps defense. After the Terps outshot the Bruins, 11-3, in the opening period, the Bruins responded with 12 shots after intermission.
Cirovski said he thought many of his players were fatigued early in the second half. He mentioned the freshmen specifically, noting their lack of experience playing in a high-intensity environment.
Despite a sluggish start out of the break, the Terps opened the scoring in the 67th minute when defender Chris Odoi-Atsem ripped a shot that deflected off a defender’s hand leading to a penalty kick.
Moments later, senior midfielder Mael Corboz placed his shot into the lower-left corner of the net and jumped toward the fans behind the goal to celebrate. The Terps were just more than 20 minutes away from upsetting the nation’s top team.
But with 10 minutes remaining, the Bruins silenced the crowd with forward Abu Danladi’s goal. Goalkeeper Cody Neidermeier, who had made two crucial saves moments earlier and finished the game with six stops, could only watch as the ball whizzed past him and into the right corner of the net.
The Terps defense stymied UCLA’s attack the rest of regulation, however, setting up Elney’s game winner in the first overtime period.
“We just bounced back,” Elney said. “We just have such a close brotherhood that we just fought for each other.”
The Terps entered the season with 13 newcomers, 11 of which were freshman, so it was unsure how this new-look team would mesh early. But the players believe their young roster is capable of competing with the nation’s best teams, and Elney exemplified that Friday night.
“Going into this year, a lot of people doubted us because of our youth,” Neidermeier said, “With these first three games, and we got another huge game on Monday, we’re setting the tone. And I think people are going to understand what we’re all about.”