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Column: Soccer Needs a New Home

Maryland soccer lost five players to the MLS from last year’s team. Three were drafted and a pair of underclassmen signed homegrown contracts. The leading goal scorer graduated. In all, the Terps return four regular starters from a 19-3-1 team that won the ACC title and was a win away from the College Cup.

Sasho Cirovski: "Right now we don’t have a stadium, we have a great stage. I feel like the Ringling Bros. and Bailey circus act." Photo by Christopher Blunck.

Losing those numbers would set back most programs, at least for a year. Losing five players deemed good enough to play professionally would trigger a borderline rebuilding project for others.

Instead, it’s business as usual at the top of college soccer for Sasho Cirovski’s team. Maryland is 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country heading into tonight’s game against N.C. State at Ludwig Field. One cycle of elite talent has left, another is working its way through.

In that last decade, Cirovski has led the school’s most successful men’s program. He has two national championships, in 2005 and 2008; annually sends players to professional clubs, some of his alumni even earning caps on national teams; and packs Ludwig Field.

What, then, is left for Cirovski, in his 19th year at Maryland, to prove? What is the endgame?

“We need a soccer stadium. We need a new team house and we need a soccer stadium,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a stadium, we have a great stage. I feel like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey circus act. We put up our tents and our stands in August and take them down in December. In the meantime we put on a great stage and a great show. But we don’t have something we can call our own and something we can celebrate the success of the program, and even to make it a better experience for our fans—not only the students but the community fans that come to games.”

Cirovski is right. His program has done it all, yet Maryland for years has balked at building a true soccer stadium. Now, as the athletic department is mired in a period of financial uncertainty, Cirovski’s dream is just that. Maryland needs to solve myriad problems before it can even think of drawing up the blueprints.

But at some point, it needs to happen. Maryland soccer is too successful and too valuable a commodity to be toiling in an erector set of a stadium. Ludwig has some charm and provides Maryland a significant homefield advantage, but it has little else in the way of amenities--a trailer behind the stands serves as the team's locker room. Not to mention the varsity team house, which is a shared unit and has the aesthetic appeal of a textile warehouse.

Cirovski even jokes that Maryland’s reluctance to build a stadium is a conspiracy to keep him at Maryland, “pushing and grinding,” as his name comes up almost every offseason for open professional jobs. He’s never shown any inclination to make the leap. He’s in his element in College Park, exerting complete control, guiding every aspect of his program.

“I think we’ve done a phenomenal job with sort of smoke and mirrors at Ludwig, but I’d love to be able to have a stadium worthy of our program,” he said.

The good news for Cirovski is the sweeping administrative changes since Debbie Yow’s departure last June have worked in his favor. It was no secret Cirovski and Yow had a less-than-rosy relationship and Dan Mote rarely ventured to Ludwig, but the coach now has two supportive bosses.

President Wallace Loh, a soccer fan, is a regular at games. Athletic director Kevin Anderson “has done an unbelievable job,” Cirovski said. “I think he’s slowly and strategically changing the culture within the department and I think there’s a lot of positives there.”

Cirovski, who makes appearances at many athletic department functions, including Randy Edsall’s and Mark Turgeon’s introduction news conferences, is the veteran around these parts. “I feel like I’m the old couch in the athletic department, but it’s a good feeling,” he said. He’s enjoying himself this fall, not just because his team is off to a perfect start, but he’s seeing the positive change in his department.

Still, there’s work to be done.

“I think that we have undersold and under-celebrated the Maryland soccer program. I think for all the success we’ve had, I think there’s still more that we can do to make soccer a bigger deal,” he said.

One step is a plan to play one game a year at Byrd Stadium, which will have a turf field before next fall. Cirovski hopes to break the attendance record for college soccer, which stands at 22,512, set at Busch Stadium in St. Louis in 1980. The record for attendance at an on-campus facility was set last year, when UC Santa Barbara drew 15,896 for a game against UCLA.

Maryland can almost certainly best the latter, and given the right circumstances, the former is in reach. Earlier this month, Maryland drew a crowd of 7,178 fans to Ludwig for its win over Stanford, the second-largest crowd in stadium history. Ludwig’s official capacity is 7,000.

What’s more, the D.C. and Baltimore area has a strong soccer fan base; both markets ranked in the top 10 nationally for television ratings for last year’s men’s World Cup and this year’s women’s World Cup.

And on campus, soccer games are among the biggest non-revenue athletic draws.

“I would like to think that we’re right behind—maybe not in terms of overall fans and things like that—basketball and football in terms of importance at this school,” senior forward Casey Townsend said. “I think people hold us in a high regard and we try to live up to that. We might not bring in the big dollars, but we put on a good show and people appreciate that.”

Maryland has made leaps beyond the confines of Ludwig, establishing itself as a nationally recognizable program in what still is a niche sport. The Terps are regulars on Fox Soccer Channel, a national outlet, and last year Cirovski secured the donations to stream every home game live on the internet.

His program even has global relevance. In the United States’ 1-0 friendly loss to Costa Rica on Sept. 2, two former Terps (Maurice Edu and Robbie Rogers) started for the U.S.; a third, Clarence Goodson, was a reserve; and a fourth, Rodney Wallace, scored the only goal for Costa Rica.

In every way, Maryland soccer has proved itself an elite program with no signs of slowing down. But it is missing the one piece to bring it to the next level.

“It’s frustrating because you look around other places all over the country and there’s new locker room complexes, new stadiums, new everything this and that,” Cirovski said. “I know one day we’re going to have that at Maryland. I’m still a firm believer that everything starts and finishes with people. And we’ve always put a premium on our recruiting efforts and providing the best service to our players that anyone can provide. I know they appreciate that and they really buy into all the things we’re doing, and as a result we’ve been successful. But I know all of the alumni and former and current players one day want to celebrate a stadium and not just a stage.”

Maryland soccer is the Joneses. It should not have to keep up with anyone.

“The money hasn’t been there for him in the past, and I know he’s always wanted a stadium,” Townsend said. “But Ludwig is my second home and I can’t imagine anything else. But this program deserves a stadium and I think it’s a top program in the country and I think it’s only a matter of time before we get a stadium. I think we deserve it.”

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