GOALKEEPER ZACK STEFFEN SAT WITH HIS TEAMMATES in a hotel room the night of Sept. 1 trying to figure out how, hours earlier, the Terrapins men’s soccer team had let a close road match against California slip right through its fingers.

The Golden Bears scored twice in regulation, but both times the Terps responded with equalizing goals. Forward Jake Pace tied the game at 2-2 in the 79th minute when his strike from 24 yards deflected into the back of the net to force overtime. But just more than six minutes into the first extra-time period, Steffen — a freshman making his second career start — misplayed a header off a Cal corner kick, leaving an easy rebound goal for midfielder Alec Sundly.

The Terps dropped to 0-1-1 after the loss — they played to a 3-3 draw at Stanford two days earlier — and the season-opening two-game West Coast trip had taken a toll on the team physically and mentally. Glaring weaknesses on the defensive end in both matches left a sour taste of disappointment in the mouths of players and coaches alike.

But now, more than three months later, the No. 5-seed Terps will have a chance at redemption in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals against the No. 4-seed Golden Bears in Berkeley, Calif., tomorrow afternoon in an opportunity the group has been fervently waiting for since they sat together, defeated, in that hotel room.

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Zack Steffen
Zack Steffen

“That’s what we said after the game,” Steffen said. “We wanted them at the end of the year, and now we’ve got them.”

The Golden Bears moved into the top 10 of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America national rankings after wins over the then-No.2 Terps and then-No. 3 Georgetown to open the season. They went undefeated in their next 10 matches, jumping to No. 1 in the country after a victory over College of Charleston on Sept. 22.

However, the group stumbled in the final third of the regular season, dropping four of its final six games, including losses to No. 1-seed UCLA, which was ousted from the tournament by Connecticut on Sunday, and No. 2-seed Washington, which plays No. 7-seed New Mexico tomorrow.

The Terps’ journey to the postseason has been dramatically different. After winning just once in their first four games, the Terps dropped from the top-15 of the NSCAA rankings.

Coach Sasho Cirovski opted for youth along his backline and in the net, and the inexperience proved costly early in the season. Not to mention, a lack of team defense from attackers only compounded the problem and put more pressure on freshmen defenders Chris Odoi-Atsem and Suli Dainkeh, as well as Steffen.

These issues were put on full display against the Cardinal and the Golden Bears, but the tough matches proved crucial in the Terps’ development.

“We didn’t represent the best of Maryland soccer,” Cirovski said. “We weren’t happy with our performance. And we knew we were going to get better. We went out to play those games so they would make us better and prepare us for these moments at the end of the year.”

Slowly but surely, the Terps gained confidence. Cirovski moved junior Dan Metzger from outside midfielder to defensive midfielder and shifted redshirt junior Jereme Raley from outside midfielder to right back. Both upperclassmen provided calming presences and smart decision-making, turning a defensive unit that was once a crucial flaw into a consistent strength. What’s more, Steffen became the elite, game-changing goalkeeper Cirovski expected when he recruited him.

As a result, the Terps lost just once in their final 14 regular season games and have allowed only one goal in five straight postseason wins, including three shutouts in the ACC tournament — a title they took home for the second consecutive season.

“We came together real well in preseason and early on in the beginning of the season, and I knew we always had the makings to [succeed], but we had a couple growing pains,” forward Patrick Mullins said. “I always thought we were doing things the right way. We just weren’t putting the performances in on the field. And I always felt — and we had confidence around the team — we were going through some hard times, but we were going to continue doing the right things on the training grounds, in the weight room, everything to get us back to where we wanted to be on the field.”

That commitment paid off, and Mullins said the team is playing its best soccer of the season heading into Saturday — a second chance the Terps have wished for all year. A whole season has passed since the team’s first meeting, and a rematch is now set with a spot in the College Cup on the line.

“This is exactly what we wanted,” Mullins said.

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Patrick Mullins
Patrick Mullins