Sasho Cirovski saw a back line in flux early in the season. It showed in his Maryland soccer team's opener.
Alex Lee missed two preseason games. Ethan White switched from right center to left center back. The Terrapins started three sophomores, albeit a pair who started plenty a season ago.
The confluence was four goals yielded in an opening night loss to Michigan State, and questions of how quickly the defense could morph from potential liability to the strength it so often it is for Maryland.
The answer, it turned out, was roughly a month. The No. 6 Terps scrapped past No. 2 Connecticut 1-0 at Ludwig Field on Tuesday, churning out their second straight shutout of a top-10 team.
"We're definitely in a lot better place than where we were at the beginning of the season, but we still have a lot of work to do," Lee said. "Every game, I feel like we're getting better. Our connection between everyone is real good right now."
And it's why Cirovski, even if he's not necessarily saying it, probably is well aware his team is capable of thriving in the postseason crucible.
Tuesday's victory was Maryland's eighth game since the opening 4-3 loss to Michigan State. The Terps (6-2-1) have surrendered just four goals in that span, including two on penalty kicks.
Still, Maryland found itself at a bit of a season crossroads in the last week. They'd generally done what they were supposed to since the opener, disposing of less talented teams at home while tying a capable Boston College bunch and falling to an especially talented North Carolina outfit on the road.
There was no shame in those results, but it didn't exactly tell Maryland a whole lot about itself either. Visits from Duke and Connecticut surely would.
It turns out the Terps learned plenty about their defensive maturity, blanking the Blue Devils and Huskies while smothering both teams' most potent offensive threats.
Connecticut (7-1-2) entered averaging 2.89 goals, and it struggled to generate serious opportunities for nearly the entire night.
"We kind of had to convince ourselves we were still a contender and
not a pretender, so it was definitely huge for us to come back and beat
two top-10 teams," midfielder Patrick Mullins said.
There was a juxtaposition between the two victories. Friday's defeat of Duke attracted a facility-record of 7,260 and played on a clear, mild night. The victory against Connecticut came on a crisper, windier evening, with two weary teams playing a more sluggish game in front of 1,450.
No matter. It was an improvement from a month earlier, with Lee, White, Taylor Kemp and London Woodberry showing considerable progress from the opener.
"We still weren't a unit [against Michigan State], and things came a little bit easier for us in preseason than they probably should have," Cirovski said. "I think there was a false sense of security. I think sometimes I underestimate how much anxiety our players feel playing at home in the first game, because they want to please so much and there's just so much energy diverted in different ways."
Not every game is like an opener --- or a sellout like the Duke game. And that's all right, because the routine daily details are crucial in building a title contender.
Cirovski is well aware of that. Forwards Jason Herrick and Casey Townsend have combined for one assist in the last four victories, but it isn't a major concern. Rarely does Cirovski worry about where the Terps will find offense.
Yet for all of Maryland's usual flair, it will thrive in November and December only if its defense can help the Terps grind out victories without regard to artistic value.
After the Terps' first back-to-back shutout victories in more than a year --- and the rapid development of a promising if youthful back line --- a blueprint for the second half and the regular season and beyond is now established.
Mullins need not fret; Maryland is a contender. And it has a fast-improving defense to thank for solidifying its top-10 status in the last week.
"You can see the partnership with Alex and Ethan is getting better every game," Cirovski said. "Taylor is getting better every game. I think he's right now been one of our best players over the last four games. London is settling in, so I think this young, talented back line is coming together."