COLLEGE PARK - When the Maryland men's soccer team launches its season today in Omaha, Neb., the familiar face of coach Sasho Cirovski will be missing from the sidelines.
Normally, that would be cause for concern against a nationally ranked foe such as Furman, but this team is expected to take his absence in stride.
"I don't think it's a big deal, and I don't think it'll affect us," said junior striker Abe Thompson, the leading returning scorer from a Terps squad that reached the national Division I semifinals before a controversy-filled, 2-1 loss to UCLA. "We've been together so long we know exactly what we can do."
"This is a very mature and experienced team," said Cirovski. "I don't think it'll matter."
The coach will be forced to sit out the opener because of an NCAA penalty. He was red-carded for heatedly debating several calls during the defeat by UCLA, which left the Terrapins with a 20-5 final record.
No matter where Cirovski is located this season, he is dealing with a full deck. The No. 2-ranked Terps lost only one player, return all 11 starters and signed just one freshman, goaltender Keegan Riseling, who will sit out the season as a redshirt. In a word, Maryland is loaded.
"This is the year we've been shooting for," said the coach. "We struggled for a long time with injuries and with guys not playing in their junior and senior years [because of defections to the professional ranks]. Now, we've got seven seniors and four of them are in their fifth year. That's a very rare situation."
Thompson, a junior in his fourth season, has individual goals, to be sure, but he prefers to talk about the team's objectives.
"We want to continue to be unbeaten at home, defend our ACC title and make it back to Final Four," he said. "Our stadium [Ludwig Field] has been dolled up a little bit, and I definitely see us being tough there.
"We were disappointed with the way last season ended."
The Terps were unbeaten in 13 home games last season and haven't lost at Ludwig since the 2001 NCAA playoffs, when Loyola nipped the injury-hampered team, 1-0.
With so much experience and savvy, Maryland has been able to prepare for its powerhouse schedule immediately.
"Most of the time, the first couple of days are very quiet in preseason," Thompson said. "This year, guys walked in knowing what's going on."
That is a favorable situation considering the Terps' schedule, which includes 14 of 19 games against teams that played in the NCAA tournament and 12 against those ranked in the Top 25 in one of the various preseason polls.
Besides Furman and possibly Creighton (a Final Four team) in the Diadora Challenge this weekend, Maryland will begin its highly attractive Ludwig schedule against defending NCAA champion UCLA in the Maryland Adidas Classic next weekend, will face all the usual ACC powers and has nationally prominent Connecticut, Ivy League champion Penn, local rivals Loyola, George Mason, Georgetown and American and Big Ten contender Ohio State coming to College Park.
"It's ridiculous, really," Cirovski said of the opposing lineup. "But we know fans enjoy coming to games they know are going to be competitive. And at the end of those, you're going to be able to measure where you are.
"Our losses to Wake Forest, Connecticut and Virginia served us well last year; we became a better team. This schedule is designed to challenge us. This team is old enough to know and handle that. But we have to stay healthy."
Thompson said Maryland's troubles during his early career might have "happened for a reason. We were a little unlucky then with all the injuries. Now, we've got a quiet confidence about us."
Cirovski believes in this team, which has a returning All-American in midfielder Sumed Ibrahim, four all-ACC picks in Ibrahim, Thompson, hard-working midfielder Scott Buete and defender Seth Stammler, a veteran goalie in Noah Palmer and depth to spare.
"This is the most wonderful group I've ever coached," Cirvoski said. "There is something about this team in the way they feed off each other and the way they get along that is unique in college sports."