Backline: Sasho Cirovski

Like many of the players he now coaches at the University of Maryland, Sasho Cirovski faced the choice of when to go pro.

Cirovski was a 17-year-old growing up in Windsor, Ont. - his family having immigrated to Canada from Macedonia when he was 8 - when he went on trial with Scottish club Aberdeen in 1981. The tryout had been set up by Cirovski's high school coach, a Scotsman who was friends of Aberdeen coach Alex Ferguson - now Sir Alex of Manchester United.

After training with players such as Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan, Ferguson offered Cirovski a two-year contract to join the reserve squad of the club that would soon win two league titles and the European Cup Winners' Cup.

When he returned to Windsor, the immigrant-rich soccer community there was appalled that Cirovski had turned down the offer, which included room and board, and decent pay.

"I quickly turned it down because I wanted to go to college," Cirovski said. "My mother and father only finished third and fourth grade. It was always important for me that I didn't face the same hard life that they lived. I remember at one point they were both unemployed for 22 straight months in the mid-1970s."

Cirovski spent the first eight years of his life in Vratanica, a village of about 600 in what was then still Yugoslavia. He played soccer everyday, "with anything round that would roll." Around the time of his 7th birthday, Sasho's father had traveled to Germany and France to search for a "better life for us." He brought back an adidas soccer ball.

"The entire village played with it virtually every minute of the daylight hours," he remembers. "The ball busted about 30 days later. It was like I had the happiest moment and saddest moment within a month span."

In Canada, Sasho excelled in soccer, and after high school teammates moved on to U.S. colleges he chose that path as well.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he was coached by Bob Gansler, later the U.S. 1990 World Cup coach. The NASL had folded by the time Cirovski finished college ball. He earned an MBA, played in the indoor NPSL and the outdoor Canadian Soccer League, where at age 24 was player/coach of the North York Rockets.

He became head coach of the University of Hartford in 1991 and in 1993 took the helm at Maryland, which he turned into a national power: 14 NCAA tournament appearances include six trips to the final four and national titles in 2005 and 2008.

During Cirovski's tenure, more than 30 Terrapins moved on to play in MLS. From last year's title-winning team, Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza start on the Los Angeles Galaxy's backline, while Rodney Wallace and Jeremy Hall are regulars at D.C. United and New York, respectively. Graham Zusi sees time with Kansas City. DeLeGarza and Zusi played the four college seasons; Gonzalez and Hall left after three; and Wallace after one.

Maurice Edu, a member of the 2005 title-winning squad, was MLS's No. 1 draft pick in 2007 and rookie of the year before moving to Glasgow Rangers.

Robbie Rogers, a 2008 MLS champ with Columbus, said he picked Maryland because he knew it would prepare him for the pros.

"I visited and saw how professional the atmosphere was," says Rogers, who played in the Netherlands before joining the Crew. "The locker room, the training facilities, the training. The practices were fast-paced, he's very involved, but he let us play."

In the offseason, most of the Maryland players play pickup games three or four nights a week, often joined by D.C. United players.

"What they do in the offseason is a big reason for their success," says the 46-year-old Cirovski.

Taylor Twellman has scored more than 100 MLS goals since leaving Maryland in 1999.

"Sasho is intense and straight-forward," Twellman says. "He tells players exactly what he's thinking, which is what they need. So when they go to the pros, they know how to handle criticism."

Remarkably, Maryland remains the nation's elite program despite annually losing players who leave early for the pros.

"We're rarely surprised when a player leaves early," Cirovski says. "We care deeply about their development and we know what their their goals are. As a college coach, you'd love your guys to stay four years. But a lot of factors play into the decision of when to turn pro. I think our players respect the honesty and the partnership we have with them making that decision."

(This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

 

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