Terps' Sasho Cirovski fighting for role of college soccer

Critics say collegiate environment stunts technical growth. But with two of his former players on U.S. World Cup squad, longtime Maryland coach pushes importance of character and leadership.

June 20, 2014|By Ryan Bacic | The Baltimore Sun

Amid the old Terps jerseys and the "Daddy's Girls" picture frame and the College Cup posters in Sasho Cirovski's office sit the Maryland soccer coach's two bookcases. They're packed, he says, with "every coaching book you can imagine."

One book in particular stands out: the autobiography of Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, who before his 2013 retirement won 13 English Premier League titles, 19 domestic cups and two Champions League crowns. He is, in short, probably soccer's most successful manager of all time — and by far its most legendary.

He's also a good friend of Cirovski's.

The two met in 1980, when Ferguson was the manager of Scottish league champions Aberdeen FC and Cirovski an aspiring pro from Ontario. Cirovski was there for a trial, and Ferguson — impressed with the Yugoslavian-born midfielder who took notes after every practice — ultimately offered him a contract.

Cirovski turned it down. Longing for a college degree, he started the next fall at Wisconsin-Milwaukee instead.

In recent years, that kind of path has come under increasing criticism in U.S. soccer circles with the transformative appointment of Juergen Klinsmann as national team manager. College soccer's seasons are too short, its detractors say, and the training environments aren't good enough to compete with the Manchester Uniteds of the world.

"The good players are going to go with the MLS teams — that's just the reality of it," said Bohemians coach Santino Quaranta, a Baltimore native who joined D.C. United at 16. "They're not looking to play in college. That's not what the best players are going to do. If the kids on this team — obviously it plays a role with their families and stuff, but I can tell you, if they had a chance to play in MLS today, I'd imagine that they'd take the opportunity."

Yet when Klinsmann announced his 30-man preliminary roster for this summer's World Cup, four former Terps were on the list. Two of those — midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Omar Gonzalez — ultimately went with Klinsmann to Brazil.

Against Ghana on Monday night, it was Zusi's corner-kick assist that led to the United States' 86th-minute game-winner.

“It really ticks me off when ... people who don’t spend the time to see what happens internally at the University of Maryland, [criticize college soccer],” Cirovski said. “If you come here and see what really happens and then you make that argument, then fine.

“But do your homework before you make claims like that.”

And so it is that Cirovski, now approaching his 21st year in College Park, continues to see the value in education.

An issue of philosophy

At the 1990 World Cup in Italy — the United States' first appearance at the tournament in 40 years — all 23 players on the U.S. roster had gone to college. Two of them (midfielders Chris Henderson and Neil Cavone) were still in college when they were named to the squad. And one, then-Blast player Desmond Armstrong, was a Maryland alum, the school's first World Cup player.

With no professional outdoor league in the country at the time, college soccer was more important than ever. Still, when Cirovski arrived at Maryland in 1993, there were just four scholarships, no men's soccer media guide, no TV or VCR in his old office to break down film, and too few players to scrimmage 11-a-side in practice.

As he looked to build the program, then, he looked to Manchester United.

"There's just a commitment to excellence and a complete, all-in mentality of everybody associated, from the parking attendants to the grounds crew to the people in charge of the tea at Manchester United," Cirovski said.

That formula appears to have paid off, too: Maryland won its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in 1996, reached its first College Cup in 1998 and won its first of two national championships seven years later.

This season, 16 former Terps are also on Major League Soccer rosters — a total that trails only UCLA in terms of MLS alma maters.

"[Cirovski has] built an atmosphere, he's built a program, he's built a culture that a lot of top players in the country identify with and get excited about and want to play in," Georgetown coach Brian Wiese said.

In the mid-2000s, Gonzalez and Zusi were among those top players. Two of just 11 players with college experience on the 2014 World Cup roster, both were highly touted coming out of high school, but both came to College Park far from the players they are today. Gonzalez, who became a regular starter for the senior national team last year, had been a striker until Cirovski recruited him and converted him into a center back. Zusi, who started only a handful of games as a freshman, took four years to blossom into a star.

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