By AVI CREDITOR
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Back in 2008, Sasho Cirovski hardly expected Zac MacMath to have a junior season.
Considering the pedigree that MacMath, the University of Maryland's 19-year-old star goalkeeper, carried with him to Ludwig Field, and considering the track record of other Maryland standouts who have jumped early to the professional ranks, one could understand the Maryland coach's cautious outlook.
"When Zac came in, we always said if we get two years out of you, that's great," said Cirovski, who enters his 18th year at Maryland having seen players such as Maurice Edu, Robbie Rogers, Chris Seitz, Jeremy Hall, Omar Gonzalez and Rodney Wallace bolt for the pros before exhausting their collegiate eligibility.
"Zac has really enjoyed his experience here and knows the value of playing in highly competitive games in front of big crowds," Cirovski said. "That means something and has been beneficial to his growth and development."
With an NCAA national championship already in tow, a budding career in the U.S. national team system and professional organizations ogling his skill and potential, MacMath's return for his third year at college is a boon for Maryland, which kicks off its season Friday night at home against Michigan State.
"It wasn't really a choice," MacMath said. "I went through the opportunities and felt like coming back would be more beneficial for my career. Definitely the opportunity to win another national championship helps, too."
That is music to Cirovski's ears.
Maryland is gearing up for a run at its third national championship since 2005 and returns nine starters, including fully fit strikers Casey Townsend and Jason Herrick and U.S. U-20 defender Ethan White.
However, perhaps nobody's return means more than that of the anchor in the back, MacMath.
As a freshman in 2008, when Maryland won the national championship, he posted a gaudy goals against average of 0.44 — the lowest in school history. Last season, working behind a patchwork back line that included two freshman starters and lacked continuity and experience, that number doubled to a still-impressive 0.88.
"He wanted to come back. He earned our captaincy before his 19th birthday. That speaks volumes to the kind of mature person he is," Cirovski said. "Zac wants to do something special here at Maryland, and I don't think that the one championship was enough for him."
Another championship would be another in a line of accomplishments for MacMath, who starred in goal for the United States Under-20 national team that captured the Milk Cup over the summer.
"International Zac is a little more intense," said White, who teamed with MacMath at the Milk Cup. "His nerves were flying a little more."
If that's the case, the results hardly reflect that. MacMath posted clean sheets against China in the opening match of the tournament and against host Northern Ireland in the final to help guide the United States to the title.
After the tournament he took a trip to England to train with Tim Howard and Everton to spend time with and learn under the Yanks' No. 1 keeper.
"I took a lot away from that," MacMath said. "Just the ins and outs of being a pro, seeing him get there every day and do his job, being around an English Premier League team, seeing how they go about things and just taking away life lessons on what it is to be a professional soccer player."
Some of his teammates have taken note of the impact that his summer experiences have had on his performance.
"I don't know if Zac needs any more confidence, but you can tell he's gotten better," Townsend said. "He's a little more mature, and he takes control of the team."
That control and leadership is crucial as MacMath tries to help navigate the Terrapins through the treacherous Atlantic Coast Conference.
With stacked opponents such as defending-national-champion Virginia, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Duke and Boston College, MacMath has his hands full in the upcoming months, at the end of which he'll be faced with the same decision about his future. And that's all before he suits up for the national team in 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifying in the winter.
"He'll be a better goalkeeper by this December than he was last December," Cirovski said. "The combination of his experience here at Maryland along with his Under-20 national team experience is going to put him in a good situation to decide. He'll have his chance to pick and choose, whether he wants to go to Europe, MLS or come back. All of those options will be on the table at the end of the year."