When it comes to Maryland and this year's College Cup, I have reservations -- and I don't mean the airline kind.
After ending a 36-year title drought last season, the Terrapins might not have to wait that long for their next championship, but this team doesn't looked poised for a repeat.
That hasn't stopped Maryland from getting all the attention. The Terps are at the top of most preseason polls. But even coach Sasho Cirovski doesn't seem sold on the idea, saying: "Particularly in college soccer, there isn't much information out there about the realities of the situation. As an example, our rankings right now are very flattering and very appreciated, but perhaps they're not really realistic of where we are."
The catch is he doesn't mean it in that self-deprecating way coaches use to downplay preseason hype. He means it in an I'm-not-sure-how-they-came-to-that-conclusion-because-didn't-anyone-notice-how-many-players-we-lost kind of way.
Exactly how many players were lost is hard to pin down. Cirovski says the team lost nine. Comparing this year's roster against last year's, there are 10 different players. The Terps' media guide simply says the team lost six seniors and makes no mention of the other departures, which include two transfers to other schools.
Whatever the reason for the departures, the team took a big hit. Twenty-two of the team's 66 goals last season came from M.A.C. Hermann winner and now Columbus Crew forward Jason Garey. No matter how deep a team you have, 22 goals are tough to replace.
Would-be sophomore Robbie Rogers, the team's third-leading scorer in 2005, offered a quick "Het vaarwel" (or however you say "see ya!" in Dutch) three weeks ago as he signed with Holland's SC Heerenveen.
On the other side, the Terps lost five players who combined to start over 270 games the last four seasons. Sophomore A.J. Delagarza is the only returning starter on defense.
Hope resides in the midfield with Stephen King, Maurice Edu and A.J. Godbolt all back. Cirovski says these three are the "best," "best," and "one of the best" midfielders in the country -- King is the "best attacking midfielder," Edu is the "best defensive midfielder" and Godbolt is well, "one the best crossers of the ball." Hey, there are only so many bests that can be used for midfielder descriptions.
Taking into account that King is the leading returning scorer with 15 goals in 2005 and Godbolt added 13 assists, scoring should still be possible even if the team struggled with it in the preseason.
Chris Seitz returns for his second season in goal after posting a 13-1-2 record with six shutouts as a freshman. According to Cirovski, who might have a slight tendency to overuse superlatives, "Chris Seitz is the best goalkeeper in the country."
Maryland's recruiting class ranked fourth in the nation so one would like to think the team has a few new players who can make an immediate impact. The Terps have two transfers -- former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rich Costanzo from Penn State, who is listed as an all-purpose defender/midfielder/forward, and backup goalkeeper Aaron Chinn from Canada.
At the top of the incoming freshman class are Omar Gonzalez and Jeremy Hall. Both are members of the U-17 national team and spent the last few years in the U.S. Soccer residency program. The other six newcomers have the standard "all's" necessary to play at the D-I college level -- racking up more than a dozen all-conference, all-district, all-state and All-American honors among them.
Still, this team is struggling to get to where it was at this point last season. It took the Terps three games to record a goal. Granted, two were in exhibition play and won't count in the record books, but you can bet No. 12 Indiana's counting the goal that gave the Hoosiers a 1-0 preseason win over Maryland.
Maryland scored twice for a 2-0 win over No. 23 Old Dominion to start the season and then shut out Binghamton 3-0. That's progress, but the team has to prove it's capable of scoring against the top teams in the nation. This Friday's game against a UCLA team that handed it a 4-0 loss last season will be a true indicator of where Maryland currently stands.
"It doesn't matter where we are heading into September," King said. "It's where we are in December."
That's true, but the farther behind other top-10 caliber teams Maryland is right now, the more distance it has to make up by season's end.
Where this team will be by that time is hard to predict. Of course, the Terps will be in the national tournament -- come on, this is Maryland. Will the Terps make their fifth-straight College Cup? Well, this isn't the same Maryland.
As it stands, this team looks good. Last year's team demonstrated it was great. So what is the difference between a good team and great team? Seitz put it best.
"Well," he said. "The difference is probably how we finish."
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org